Teaching in Prison: Our Experiences

Both Lynn and Stephanie were volunteer instructors at the Indiana County (PA) Jail through the Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit (ARIN) 28, the agency which provides adult education programs to people in the surrounding area, including inmates at the jail. Below, Lynn and Stephanie share their insight and experiences teaching in the prison system, and their course schedules/outlines and a few sample lesson plans.

Lynn’s Experience

In the early 1990s, before prisoners were banned from the Pell grant program, a friend of mine taught a literature class for male inmates at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. At the time, I thought it was the bravest thing ever, and I asked her if she was ever afraid. Quite the contrary, she told me. Reading and discussing literature with incarcerated men was the most rewarding experience of her career to-date.

I never forgot that, and when I applied to the master’s program  in composition and literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2015, learning to teach introductory courses in a community college setting in general and in the prison system specifically was my goal. Education is not only the key to reducing recidivism, but as a country, I believe we must be committed to equal access to quality education for everyone, including (and perhaps most especially), those who are incarcerated. In the U.S., nearly 600,000 people are released from prison each year. The question needs to be, who do we want them to be as they return to our neighborhoods, our public spaces, and their families? As an educator, my goal is to do what I can to help them be literate, insightful, and contributing members of our society upon release.

To get my foot in the sally port, so to speak, I contacted ARIN to see how I might start working on my goal, thinking perhaps I could be a one-on-one GED tutor. Learning of my background, however, the coordinator asked me to teach a literature and writing class for female inmates. Initially I was thrilled…and then I panicked. I had no blueprint to draw from and no real criteria to adhere to, and so I reached out to members of the IUP English department for guidance. I eventually was put in contact with Kyes Stevens, founder of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, which offers literature and art classes in prisons throughout Alabama. She mentored me as I developed my first classes, and she shared resources and much needed advice. I am eternally grateful for her support. (Click here to read a recent article she wrote for AL.com)

To date I have taught four courses at the jail, and I also volunteer at the State Correctional Facility – Pine Grove as a consultant for the inmate-written newsletter, The Grove, and as a tutor for resume and cover letter writing. Like my friend in the early 1990s, my work within the prison system has turned out to be the most rewarding of my teaching career to-date. Through the ongoing process of trial and error, I have honed my teaching skills, and in researching relevant pedagogical materials and classroom activities, I’ve been introduced to a large repertoire of authors, genres, critical theories, and methods that I might not have discovered, let alone considered, when preparing to teach in a non-prison setting. The students I have taught have taught me the importance of showing and not telling, and listening and staying present. They bring to the classroom experiences that enhance and sometimes complicate traditional textual interpretations, and their writing is often inspiring and heartbreaking, and it is always real. On a personal level, teaching incarcerated individuals has been a humbling way in which to practice compassion.

As I go forward, I will continue to champion for inmates’ rights to education, and further explore and be curious about literature written about, for, and by the prison population.

Samples of my course schedules and lesson plans. Each is in PDF format. 

Introduction to Poetry, Fiction, & Creative Writing (Winter 2016)

Nonfiction: Writing What We Know (Summer 2016)

Literature and Writing (Spring 2017)

Poetry Workshop (Summer 2017)

Samples of The Grove Newsletter written by the inmates of SCI Pine Grove in Indiana, PA. 

The Grove April 2017

The Grove May June 2017

The Grove July August 2017

The Grove Sept October 2017

The Grove Nov Dec 2017

The Grove Jan Feb 2018

The Grove March April 2018

8 The Grove June 2018

9 The Grove Aug Sept 2018

10 Nov Dec 2018 Newsletter

11 Spring 2019 Newsletter

12 Summer 2019 Newsletter

Stephanie’s Experience

When I first signed up to teach a class in the jail, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was nervous about meeting incarcerated people, being in a jail, safety and security, and most of all, my first real teaching experience, where the goals of the class and the learning would be based on decisions that I would have to make.

Luckily, ARIN provided a ton of support and information so that I could go into this new situation and do my best work as a developing teacher and scholar. They told me what to expect in terms of the physicality of the prison teaching environment, the resources that would be available to me in the classroom, tips on how to work with the students, and some ideas on how to structure my class.

As I developed the materials for our first day, I thought a lot about what I wanted to accomplish with these students, and how I could best manage these goals. I was deeply focused on empowering my students, especially as they were in a situation where their power was compromised by the restraints of being incarcerated. I also wanted to ensure that they left my class with more than a resume – I wanted to encourage them to think critically about all sorts of things, ranging from their own experiences to something as innocuous as magazine advertisements. Finally, I didn’t want to assume a lack of knowledge on their part, but I also felt it was important to ensure that they could admit if/when they didn’t know something, as I was working with a diverse group of learners that brought varying levels of knowledge into the classroom. I wanted to make sure that they felt empowered to take control of their own learning, and to understand that a lack of knowledge was not a dent in their character, but instead an opportunity to add something to their repertoire.

As such, I drafted my syllabus and lesson plans (samples included below) with a few key ideas in mind:

  • Negotiation
    • My students could not make many choices about their day-to-day life in jail, but in my classroom I wanted them to feel free to tell me if something was boring or irrelevant, or to tell me that they wanted to focus more deeply on a particular topic.
    • However, I was also the ultimate decision maker if we encountered a topic that was “boring” but needed to be explored. For example, when we talked about punctuation, the class was reluctant to take the time to talk about it, but I made sure to make the lesson brief and practical because I knew it was important to their development as skilled writers.
  • Critical Thinking
    • Although ARIN’s ultimate goal was to produce employment materials for the students, I focused more broadly on literacy and life skills and incorporated the resumes and cover letters into this framework.
    • This meant that, in addition to understanding rhetorical analysis and being able to use these concepts in their writing, I also wanted them to be able to more critically examine things they would encounter in their day-to-day life (ex. magazine advertisements).
  • Agency and Power
    • I wanted the texts my students read to feel relevant to them, and for us to speak plainly about these connections in the classroom. This meant selecting texts such as A Jury of Her Peers and Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail to investigate notions of justice.
    • I also emphasized the need for students to produce texts that were important to them and their own experience. As such, I encouraged the students to write a narrative piece that shared a lesson or knowledge that was important to them, their family, the general public, etc.
  • Broadening Knowledge
    • I wanted to present students with a framework that allowed them to analyze all kinds of texts. As such, we read classic literature, advertisements, letters, Sesame Street episodes – anything we could get our hands on was fair game. I wanted to complicate our ideas of reading and texts to help them to become stronger writers, readers, and consumers.
    • I also wanted to share knowledge with them that society may not have felt was important for them to learn due to their incarceration. I shared concepts and theories that I was learning in my own MA coursework, and gave them access to “advanced” information that some may feel was “wasted on criminals.”
      • I made sure to tell the students where our information came from, and emphasized that they had just as much right to these ideas as I did, regardless of our divergent learning experiences.
  • Humanity
    • I emphasized to students that, despite my not being incarcerated with them, we were simply different people with different experiences, and that these experiences made none of us more or less important in relation to each other. The same was true of my status as the instructor – I was learning just as much as they were, and they had as much ability to teach me as I had to teach them.
    • I used my own knowledge from my coursework as well as personal experiences from my life to show them that we were not all that different, as well as to show that I wasn’t scared of sharing parts of my life with them – I had no reason to be afraid of them just because they were in jail. We were just a community of learners committed to learning together, no more, no less.

These concepts were present throughout the course, and I integrated them with my own background in rhetoric and composition. Together, the students and I explored ideas of justice and injustice, systematic oppression, empowerment, the importance of telling all kinds of stories, and the healing available to us as writers, as well as how to best use writing to accomplish these goals. We did a session of freewriting each week, and spent most of the class drafting their own stories, which spoke to a number of issues, including families dealing with an addict, what can lead to addiction, prison experiences, and ideas regarding the importance of being true to oneself.

Throughout the course, I shared some of my own work with them and encouraged them to examine its rhetoric and critique it, so that they could feel comfortable regarding me as a member of the class, rather than an instructor who held all the power. I encouraged them to write their own stories and shared stories about similar experiences. Much of our class time was spent talking about what was important to them – their children, finding a job, things they missed outside of jail, and navigating the world after their release.

Teaching in the prison system is a unique experience, but it is also an incredibly rewarding one. For my part, I learned more about myself as an educator, as well as how to negotiate goals and classroom time with my students. I also learned that this type of teaching is extremely important to me, and that realization has altered the trajectory of my education – my goal is to work with inmates in my teaching career and to conduct research on education and its effects on recidivism. As for my students, each of them left my class with employment materials, their stories (which I encouraged them to publish), and deepened critical thinking and writing skills. Most importantly, they also reported feeling like the class helped them to feel more empowered during their stay in the jail.

Lesson Plan Samples (PDF format, link opens in separate window)

Lesson Plan 1 – Introduction to the Course

Lesson Plan 2 – Rhetoric

Lesson Plan 3 – Writing for Different Audiences

Lesson Plan 4 – Literacy and Audience Analysis

Lesson Plan 9 – Resumes and Cover Letters


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