Beyond the Bars: Arts and Humanities Education in Prison

The prison classroom feels strangely sterile. The linoleum floor tiles have a polished sheen. The lights are harsh and yellow. The air feels thin and particularly odorless. Everything is in drab colors: the brown floor, the whitewashed walls, even the khaki scrubs the incarcerated students wear.

They scribble furiously with their stubby pencils. They’re completing a simple creative writing exercise, composing short vignettes that show (instead of tell) a given emotion. The students can’t use pens or regular pencils because the correctional officers are worried about their reappropriation for tattoos or fights or other illicit activities. So they are stuck with dull, flaky pencils. The only sound in the room is the sharp scratching of pencil on paper.

The students are all black or Hispanic. The teachers are all white or Asian. Most of the students have tattoos. One has an outline of the state of New Jersey on his forearm. Another has a spider web extending from his elbow across much of his arm. Many have teardrop tattoos down their cheeks. But squished behind tiny desks designed for children, these men look almost silly.

The teacher with the watch says stop. It’s time to share.

A big student named Robert (all student names have been changed) is the first to volunteer. He has a round face and a shiny bald head. He wears large glasses with black rims. Despite his rotund form, his prison scrubs still seem a bit too big. He has to fix his pants when he stands up. He begins to read:

“I get up and roll out of bed. I look into the mirror hanging on my wall. My face is wrinkled, worn, and tired. As I stare into my eyes, I think about my daughter. I can see her in my mind’s eye. She’s playing in a pink Barbie car while my son bikes next to her. They’re smiling and laughing happily. Surrounded by my family, I feel complete and total happiness. But with a sudden jolt, like the closing of a prison door, reality comes crashing back and I remember where I am. A single tear slides down my face.”

There’s a pregnant silence after he finishes. And then, all at once, people start snapping, pounding lightly on their desks, nodding vigorously, voicing their support. “Man, he’s stressin’!” a few of them say loudly. One student shakes his head. “Sounds like A block,” he remarks. “That’s too real,” another says.

To be sure, most prison classes in America are not like this one. Prison programming is usually designed to help incarcerated people get high school equivalency (HSE) diplomas. Such classes involve traditional math, English, social studies, and science courses where students complete workbooks and move from grade to grade, their progress culminating in a high school equivalency exam and (hopefully) a corresponding degree. These programs are hardly controversial. Even conservatives like Jason Pye, the justice director for FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group associated with the tea party, speak favorably of HSE programs, which “will have an upfront cost, but the reductions in recidivism could save taxpayers a lot of money.”

The case for HSE education is easy, even for skeptics who view prison education programs purely instrumentally. A 2013 RAND Corporation meta-analysis that comprehensively reviewed every study from 1980 to 2011 on the effectiveness of correctional education programs found that traditional prison education programs result in a “13 percentage-point reduction in the risk of re-incarceration.” They are thus wildly cost-effective rehabilitation tools.

HSE programs work. They are easy, cost-effective, uncontroversial. But what about programs that don’t culminate in a degree? What about non-instrumental classes like Robert’s—classes where creativity and sharing is encouraged instead of high test scores and strictly marketable skills? Do those have a place in the prison education landscape?

Non-instrumental classes like creative writing began in the late 1960s and early 70s. At this time, the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War created an activist culture critical of authority and sympathetic to those oppressed by it. This led to a growing prisoners’ rights movement that saw the expansion of educational opportunities and the introduction of arts programs to prisons for the first time.

The first creative writing program was offered in 1971 by Poets Playwrights Essayists Editors and Novelists (PEN). Their Prison Writing Program began sending writers to teach in prison and inaugurated a prison writing contest that still runs today. PEN claims their program “provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

PEN initiated a whole wave of creative writing programs as authors and activists alike began offering alternative education classes in prison. In fact, in the late 1970s, California created the Arts-in-Corrections program, signaling even a public interest in non-instrumental prison education. Eloise Smith, one of the programs creators, said the goal of this statewide arts program was “to provide an opportunity where a man can gain the satisfaction of creation rather than destruction.” The program provided music, dance, theater, and creative writing classes to incarcerated students all across the state of California. This educational framework was soon adopted in other states around the country. In the words of formerly incarcerated poet William Aberg, this time was “a prison renaissance.”

But the renaissance was soon followed by the Dark Ages of prison education as “tough on crime” attitudes swept the nation in the 1980s and 90s. Over the next few decades, US incarceration rates increased by an astounding 500%. Correctional education budgets were slashed, and arts programs were the first to go. California’s Arts-in-Corrections program was cut, as was nearly every other prison arts program in the country. Within a few years, correctional education programs of all kinds, and especially non-instrumental ones, disappeared.

But more recently, prison reform has gained popularity once again. In 2014, incarceration rates dipped for the first time in decades; in June of the same year, the California Arts-in-Corrections program was reinstated; and suddenly, prison education programs are sprouting all around the country. Even non-traditional programs like creative writing, philosophy, and dance classes are making a comeback. In 2012, Oberlin University began putting on plays within prison through their Oberlin Drama at Grafton program; in 2013, Princeton University inaugurated its Prison Electives Project, which teaches everything from slam poetry to current events; and in 2014, Georgetown University’s prison outreach program began offering creative writing courses for the first time in over thirty years. Such programs are too young to have had their effectiveness evaluated yet, and they remain controversial. Nevertheless, proponents claim they bring an essential new dimension to prison education.

At Princeton University, student volunteers founded the Prison Electives Project (PEP) nearly four years ago. So far, it has offered public speaking, poetry, short story, philosophy, and current events classes.

The program began in the fall of 2013, though at the time it was not known as the Prison Electives Project. In fact, it wasn’t a program at all. It was simply a single public speaking class, designed by four Princeton friends who were passionate about criminal justice reform. Each of the students had some connection to justice reform—two were on the University’s social justice outreach board, one had worked in New Jerseys’ Ban the Box campaign (to prevent employers from asking about applicants’ criminal records), and another had done HSE tutoring in prison—so together they designed a semester long public speaking course. The class was intended to be a one-time thing, but when the spring rolled around, they decided it was worth preserving what they had pioneered. As a result, they handed the reins to Kevin Wong, the current coordinator of PEP, who, over the next three years, would expand the program to its current size.

Wong is an interesting, if paradoxical, character. In his prison class, he generally acts as a facilitator, asking questions, probing responses, arguing for the other side. But sometimes he slumps at his desk and just lazily watches the discussion around him. When I talked with him, he was soft-spoken and articulate, sometimes mulling over a phrase for a moment or two, other times gushing words as if part of a well-rehearsed speech. After graduation, Wong will be studying public policy in China on the prestigious Schwarzman Scholarship before taking up a business analyst position at McKinsey and Co.

Wong claims he took on the program out of a sense of social justice. He had done HSE tutoring in prison his freshman year and when the four graduating seniors asked if he wanted to take over their class and expand it into a sustainable program, he seized the opportunity to help a particularly underserved population. In his view, PEP exists to serve constituencies that weren’t covered by existing programs, such as incarcerated people who had interests beyond the ordinary classroom programming or who had HSE diplomas but could not take college level courses yet.

But in his justification for spending resources on non-traditional prison programming, Wong makes about as many references to how the volunteer teachers can impact the students as to how the students can impact their teachers. On the one hand, he points out that these creative courses can “help you to think critically, help you to articulate your opinions, help you to feel confident speaking. These are all skills that are useful upon reentry.” But he also claims that these kinds of open-ended courses can be especially eye opening to the volunteer teachers. Because they are not rigidly defined like HSE programs, creative courses offer volunteers the chance to regularly and meaningfully interact with incarcerated people they would never otherwise meet. “I think it’s important to have a sensitivity to these issues in criminal justice that’s a little bit more than just reading the New York Times,” Wong claims. He likens PEP to Teach for America, which sends accomplished college graduates to teach in underprivileged communities, though he caveats his comparison with: “obviously the program we’re running is not Teach for America.” Nevertheless, he tells the story of when a TFA leader went to the IRS to ask for a new tax mechanism to fund a variety of education initiatives. The TFA member came ready to fight for the measure, but when he got into the IRS director’s office, the director was surprisingly cooperative. He had done TFA after college. He understood the importance of education for underprivileged communities in a far profounder way than mere statistics could demonstrate. “I think that same kind of idea—obviously on a much less ambitious scale—is kind of the reason these sorts of things are useful,” Wong says.

But others consider alternative education programs a waste of resources. Jesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. His voice has the hint of a southern drawl, and his Pope Center headshot depicts him with a big smile and an even bigger bow tie. He hesitantly assents to HSE programs: “It is appropriate in some instances for baseline educational provisions in prison,” he says cautiously, measuring his words carefully to ensure that they are devoid of any hint of enthusiasm.

But he considers anything beyond traditional HSE offerings a grave misallocation of resources. HSE programs are proven to work and they have a broad appeal in prison, where many incarcerated people do not have high school level competencies in reading, writing, and math. Introducing creative programs that go beyond such bare bones education just shows an ignorance of economics. “There’s not much room for economies of scale because not everyone is prepared for that high level course work,” Saffron says. Spending resources—even if it’s just volunteer time and prison classroom space—is an inefficient and imprudent decision.

As he criticizes alternative prison education programs, Saffron brings up the importance of “skin in the game” again and again. Incarcerated people who don’t pay tuition, don’t need to graduate in a narrow timeframe, and don’t have a test score to be working towards are incentivized to be lazy and inefficient, the two greatest sins for a conservative like Saffron. If incarcerated people really want to expand their educational opportunities, they need “skin in the game.” “Fill out your FAFSA like the rest of us,” Saffron says.

Proponents of alternative education programs disagree. “Saying sure they can have a GED program but none of that extra stuff is like the same as saying, ‘Oh yeah give them a nutraloaf,’” Ella Haselswerdt argues exasperatedly. “But I think that’s just a fundamentally different worldview about how people should be treated just by virtue of them being people.”

Haselswerdt, a graduate student in classics at Princeton University, teaches college-level philosophy classes in prison through a graduate student group called the Prison Teaching Initiative. She strongly supports non-traditional prison courses because she believes that incarcerated people deserve an enriched experience of the world. She also believes that such classes can be valuable outlets for expression and affirmation.

Haselswerdt recalls one student in particular who “had been very angry, very isolated, was really skeptical about education and his English wasn’t good.” But at the end of the course, during a kind of graduation ceremony, the student gave an “incredibly moving” speech. He said he had felt barely human in prison. He had even stopped seeing others as human. But, by engaging with peers from inside and outside the prison on philosophical issues, he was able to see himself “as a part of the greater human community.” “He was very pointed in saying that this has nothing to do with my confinement or having time to just sit in my cell and think about what I’ve done,” Haselswerdt recalls him saying. “This is directly a product of my humanities education.” One of her fellow teachers chimes in: “Even thinking about it makes me want to cry,” he says.

Likewise, Natalia Shevin, who puts on an annual prison performance through the Oberlin Drama at Grafton program, argues that alternative education classes like her dance and theater course give incarcerated students the opportunity to find themselves. She tells the story of a sixty-six-year-old incarcerated person who enrolled in her dance class. At age six, he was bullied out of doing ballet classes. “That was too much for me, so I quit,” Shevin recalls him saying. But Shevin’s dance program gave him new courage to be honest with himself and pursue personal fulfillment. “Now I’m sixty-six and I’m back sixty years later and no one is going to stop me from dancing,” he asserted. Shevin’s voice almost cracks as she talks about him. “He moves so beautifully,” she says.

While traditional HSE programs certainly provide essential skillsets to incarcerated people, alternative education proponents argue they do not typically spur this kind of personal transformation. Classes like dance, creative writing, or philosophy have a personal element necessarily built into them. They require open sharing and self-reflection. They encourage the student to get in touch with his feelings in a way that completing a reading comprehension workbook never could.

Other proponents of alternative education classes focus on the oppressive prison environment when they justify their courses. They claim that non-instrumental classes create a unique space removed from the daily reality of prison life. In such a space, students can share openly, engage as peers, and affirm each other’s humanity.

Alec Lowman and Hannah Srajer teach a poetry class in prison. Both are members of Ellipses, Princeton University’s oldest slam poetry group. They go to prison once a week to teach an hour and a half long poetry workshop. They bring in poems to discuss, perform their own pieces, and encourage their students to write and perform too.

For them, the purpose of non-instrumental courses like their poetry class is emotional learning. “Poetry is such a personal thing,” Srajer says. It is designed for sharing. Poetry gets “the incarcerated person to talk about his life and experiences through an artistic medium.”

Lowman recalls a poem that they have used every semester since the class started: “What Work Is” by Philip Levine. The poem is about a man waiting in line for work at an auto plant. As he waits, he begins to think about his brother and how much he loves him. “How long has it been since you told him you loved him?” the poem asks. “You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious… just because you don’t know what work is.” “Love is work,” Lowman interprets the poem. “Expressing that to someone can be work, particularly for men who are not necessarily encouraged to show affection.” Every semester, the poetry class discusses this poem and, through it, masculinity, emotion, and the power of honest expression. “What amazes me about our students is how willing they are to share things, especially because sometimes they don’t have other outlets to share.”

Both Lowman and Srajer emphasize this point again and again. Their poetry class is a safe space removed from the oppressiveness of prison life. In Srajer’s words, it gives their students a chance to “experience their emotions, to learn how to deal with and process what’s happening. Instead of just shut down, shut down, repress, repress, repress.”

Both poetry teachers remember a particularly harrowing moment from their class two years ago. One of the students asked if the teachers could share their work too, so Lowman and Srajer began bringing some of their own works. They figured it would be empowering to perform alongside their students. After all, the students put themselves out there every week, and it only seemed fair for the teachers to do so too.

But this arrangement didn’t last long. Srajer brought in a poem about some of her experiences growing up as a woman in her small town. The poem dealt with issues of interpersonal violence, especially sexual violence, and it used explicit language. When one of the correctional officers found the poem, he yelled at the whole group of teachers and threatened to eliminate their slam poetry class entirely. “It was terrifying,” Srajer recalls. “I thought I’d just ended our whole program because of my poem.” While the class did eventually continue, the correctional officers now began heavily censoring everything that was brought in. They even denied a poem about a cardinal that used the phrase “cardinal’s body” because the officers claimed it was sexualized language.

While the poetry teachers obligingly submitted to the new rules, they strongly disagreed with them. “Our students are grown men,” Lowman says. “We have mature, adult conversations in class and then to be told by COs, ‘Oh we have to watch them, they’re basically like seventh graders. They can’t handle it.’” He pauses exasperatedly, searching for the right words to express his frustration. “As someone that has worked with seventh graders, I can say that’s not an accurate assessment of seventh graders or our students.”

This claim about the oppressiveness of prison life is brought up again and again by proponents of non-instrumental classes. They claim that prison dehumanizes its occupants by its very design, and open classes like creative writing uniquely counteract this dehumanization. “Prison is an institution designed to rob people of their humanity,” Srajer says. “It’s trying to tell people they’re not a person.” Lowman concurs: “You’re stripped of these things that we think of as being particularly human: your independence, your ability to speak, your ability to move around and live your life.” Others from completely different prison teaching programs bring up the same argument. Natalia Shevin teaches drama in prison and claims the performances give incarcerated students “a sense of self.” This is particularly important in “a place that tries to take away everything from you, even the pictures of your grandparents.”

Prison is, of course, designed to be regimented and limiting, even oppressive. Raphael Sperry, the president of ADPSR (Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility), a nonprofit organization of architects and designers that lobbies for social justice within the architecture profession, argues this oppressive atmosphere stems largely from hard surfaces within prisons. “All of the surfaces are hard surfaces, which is supposed to make them less vulnerable to damages by the prison occupants,” he argues. But hard surfaces make prisons loud, and “it’s really stressful to just hear noise the whole time. By hardening all the surfaces you increase the stress level of all the occupants.” Olivia Robbins, who teaches for the Prison Electives Project, agrees that prisons are noisy and stressful, even for her. “The COs yell at the inmates all the time in really aggressive voices and it throws me off guard,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it does to them every day.”

In addition to the endless noise and the constant threat of violence, prisons rob their occupants of privacy. Architect Niharika Sanyal lists just a few observance mechanisms present in every American prison: “Watchtowers, open hallways, grills instead of doors to cells, use of mirrors, security cameras.” Incarcerated people get no privacy, no personal space, no respite from the vigilant eyes of the guards. Living in such a place is stressful, even traumatizing. It can make its occupants feel less than human.

Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, one of the facilities served by the Prison Electives Project, exemplifies many of these characteristics. It has wide hallways that radiate outward from a central command unit where correctional officers sit behind thick Plexiglas windows and watch security footage. When incarcerated people move through the facility, they have to walk along the sides of the hallways. Only visitors and staff walk down the middle. Before entering or exiting any workshop, cellblock, classroom, or recreational area, incarcerated people walk through metal detectors and are patted down. Sometimes they have to take off their shoes. The lights at Garden State are harsh and yellow, the kind you usually find in old warehouses. The only natural light that enters the prison filters through the bars on the tiny windows, creating regular stripes along the floor. Everything is brown and white and polished. There is no room for plants or decorations here.

Teachers of non-instrumental prison classes almost universally acknowledge this oppressive atmosphere and claim their courses uniquely counteract it. Georgetown’s creative writing coordinator, Jeremy Dang, claims that arts classes “give the inmates a space for them to talk about anything they want to talk about, a space where they can be free from the harsh realities of day-to-day life and express themselves. Creative writing is the medium we choose to do that in.” Others echo this sentiment. Hannah Srajer argues that: “A lot of inmates don’t have the emotional tools to deal with the space they’re in, which is always very traumatizing.” Her slam poetry class helps them to overcome the space, she claims, by allowing them “to feel connected to something or feel like you’re working through something.”

While other programs like HSE courses may provide innumerable benefits to their incarcerated students, this one seems unique to non-instrumental courses. In such creative classes, there is no right answer, no solution to work toward, no test score to achieve.

Kevin Wong expresses this sentiment more theoretically, drawing on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Prison classes are different from regular classes, Wong claims, “because the bars on the windows and the security guard outside and the fact that they’re all wearing prison uniform khakis.” But in some sense, the classroom is also fundamentally different from any other space in the prison. It is “an emancipatory space,” Wong claims. “In conditions of great oppression, you find in the classroom conditions that are germane to breaking out of those oppressive structures.” So for the hour or two a week that these volunteers spend in class listening to stories, sharing experiences, and validating each other’s humanity, “it’s almost like the context changes for the inmates. Even though they’re in the same building, they’re in a quite different space.”

It’s the final day of the creative writing class and the last student, William, finally volunteers to read his poem. It’s the first time he’s volunteered for anything. He had been reluctant to share all year. When everyone discussed a piece, he sat there quietly, watching instead of participating. When everyone workshopped their work, he would scribble on his paper, perhaps writing his own work, perhaps just doodling to pass the time.

William moves to the front of the room, facing the semicircle of desks. A single sliver of light cuts across his figure, the only natural light to escape the bars of this tiny prison window. The air condition hums dully in the background. Everyone is quiet, expectant.

William has one hand in his pocket. The other shakes slightly as it holds the poem. His eyes are downcast, staring nervously at the words scribbled on the sheet of notebook paper. Finally he begins to read: “I cry while no one’s listening,” he says. His voice is soft and it quavers slightly. “Like a bird at night, or a dancer with a rhythm and no words.” He is speaking more confidently now, and he looks up briefly, making eye contact with his fellow classmates.

“Silently, I sway side-to-side, side-to-side/ Listening to Shakira, nah these hips don’t lie.” He moves his hips gently back and forth. There is the sound of snapping and laughter. He smiles slightly.

“Only when the music stops and/ I have a moment of silence, do I realize…” he pauses for dramatic effect, and his eyes scan the room. “I realize ‘life’/ And I feel/ Alive.”

“I love my life! That’s what makes me feel Alive./ So Alive yet so quiet when I cry.”

William shuffles back to his desk, and everyone claps and snaps and thumps their desks. One of his classmates pounds him on the back. “That was art, man,” he says. William grins and, for a fleeting moment, it almost seems he’s forgotten his surroundings.


Steffen Seitz is a senior at Princeton University and a member of the Prison Electives Project. After graduation, he will work as a Puttkammer Fellow, setting up and maintaining tutoring programs in prisons.

This piece is part of a series on prison education. For Grace Li’s views on reimagining the purposes of the prison classroom, see:

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