Inside Colorado’s state prisons, inmates have produced a literary magazine, a newspaper, a podcast, an anthology of personal essays and a collection of plays — all within the past five years.
The frenzy of activity is the result of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, an ambitious program that has offered several thousand hours of workshops on creative writing, poetry, journalism and playwriting in 12 of the state’s prisons.
While offering courses in prisons is not new in continuing education, schools such as the University of Denver have moved beyond the traditional general education model to teach creative writing and journalism as a way of allowing inmates to express themselves and learn about the world beyond bars.
“Research and data show that this work can be deeply impactful and powerful for people,” says Ashley Hamilton, an assistant professor of theater at the University of Denver and executive director of the prison program. “It can impact the way they see themselves as community members and leaders and create a healthier sense of self and identity.”
Enrolling in a single course for some inmates can become the first step toward completing a college degree. And inmates who take any type of educational program are up to 43 percent less likely to commit another crime and return to prison, according to a study conducted by the Rand Corporation.
“It’s pretty clear that education at all levels in prison changes for many people their path in life,” says Razvan Sibii, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has taught journalism in the Hampshire County Jail. “They think of college as something middle class. Since that is not their life experience, it’s hard for them to imagine themselves there. But then they discover they can do it and it becomes a vision for their lives.”
A Focus on the Arts in the Colorado Prisons
When Hamilton was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Denver in 2017, she proposed creating a prison arts program modeled on a project she had worked on as a PhD student at New York University. “The university was very supportive and excited about the idea,” she says.
Hamilton, who cofounded the program with another faculty member and a consultant, wanted the project to focus on the arts because she believed in its therapeutic value to prisoners. Another goal was to provide an outlet in which prisoners could interact with the public.
“When you take that art practice and share it with the public, it changes the narrative of who is in prison,” she says. “The thing about prison is the average person isn’t close to it and only knows what they see on TV. We have this very specific narrative about who is in prison in our country and I think this kind of writing work and theater work opens up the possibility for people to be seen in all of their complexity.”
The university’s arts initiative offers a series of 12-week classes in the state’s prisons three times a year. Courses are taught by a mix of faculty members, graduate students, local artists and writers in the Denver community.
One inmate, Brett, says his work on the LuxLit Press, which produces several types of publications written by Colorado prisoners, has given him purpose and fulfillment as he has helped other writers discover their creative talents.
“We are developing spaces for creators to define their madness in a beautiful way,” Brett says. “I get to not only see them where they are but also help them further develop their sense of themselves and their artistic work.”
Classes in the program offer continuing education units, which the prisoners can use when they are released. “They’re definitely worth something when folks go out on parole and show how they spent their time inside,” Hamilton says. If the released prisoners decide to go back to school, she adds, they can present the CEUs at a community college for possible credit.
Teaching Journalism in a Massachusetts County Jail
In 2017, Sibii and fellow UMass Amherst faculty member Shaheen Pasha began coteaching a journalism course offered in the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections. The instructors decided to introduce the course in the county jail because the nearest state prison is hours away.
What was unusual about the course, Social Justice Journalism: Mass Incarceration, was that all of the students, including ten incarcerated men and 16 journalism majors from the university, received four university credits after completing it.
The ability to offer course credit was a major benefit for the incarcerated men enrolled in it, Sibii says. “There are many kinds of higher education programs in prisons and jails,” he says. “The holy grail when it comes to college programming is an accredited course.”
At the time the course was launched, the Pell grants that were once available to prisoners across the country had been taken away by Congress. The loss of that federal financial aid in 1994 significantly reduced the number of prisons offering college courses, a decline that was reversed when the Pell ban was repealed in 2020.
Because Pell grants weren’t available, Sibii and Pasha convinced the university administration to waive its continuing education fees so that the inmates could earn credits for the course, which they could transfer to a community college or university after they were released.
“They can use those credits anywhere,” Sibii says. “It’s the beginning of their college education.”
A journalist himself, Sibii believes that teaching the craft of reporting to incarcerated people helps them develop critical skills they will need when they are released: the ability to find information, listen to others, and assess the validity of content in the media. “These are all skills that an information economy like ours is absolutely relying on,” he says.
For the college students, the courses offered in the jail have exposed them to a facet of life they have never experienced. “They have jumped at the opportunity to see the system from the inside thanks to these courses, to get a closer look at it and to talk to people who are impacted by it,” Sibii says.
The Challenge of Sustaining a Prison Education Program
Another school that launched a new prison education program five years ago is the University of Arizona in Tucson, which began offering noncredit courses on poetry, college writing and cultural anthropology. This took its place alongside the poetry workshops that had been sponsored by the university’s Poetry Center in the state prison complex in Tucson since 1974.
Marcia Klotz, an assistant professor of English and Gender and Women Studies, says the prisoners who took her introductory writing course were engaged in the class and eager to learn. “There was just an openness to the material, to someone coming in, and to having disagreement,” she says. “We had real disagreements in the prison classroom that we don’t have in the university.”
Yet just as the pandemic shut down in-person teaching, the Arizona Department of Corrections introduced a series of online college courses offered for credit through Ashland University. A private Christian university in Ohio, Ashland has become the largest supplier of online education in prisons across the country and now offers courses to more than 5,000 prisoners in 13 states and Washington, D.C.
While the program gives prisoners the chance to earn a professional certificate, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, Klotz, who organized the University of Arizona’s prison education program, questions whether online courses accessed through tablets is the best educational format for all incarcerated students.
“One thing we’ve seen through Covid is that there are some students who do fine learning online,” she says. “They tend to be the most self-motivated students and those without emotional setbacks. Those who have emotional challenges have really fallen through the cracks in our education system when we shifted to online education.”
The prison population, she adds, is “defined by those who are traumatized and have all kinds of emotional setbacks. So to imagine that we can have this kind of electronic substitute for in-person education — it’s not a realistic option for everyone.”
While the prison administration has allowed a handful of University of Arizona faculty members to begin teaching in the prison yards again, Klotz worries that the future of the program may be uncertain. “When Covid hit and we had to leave the facility, that set a big stumbling block in front of our program,” she says. “The online program offered by University of Ashland is another one, because it is clearly easier to manage.”
As the University of Arizona’s courses are reintroduced in the state prisons, Klotz hopes that the program will one day be able to offer for-credit classes. “It’s a difficult battle because we rely on the prison administrators,” she says. “If they don’t open the gates, we don’t go in, and at this point, things are more complicated than they were before Covid.”
Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer specializing in higher education. She writes for Rutgers University, Cornell University, Colgate University and Rochester Institute of Technology. Her work focuses on creating website content, magazine articles, blog posts, and white papers.