The University of Arizona Prison Education Project is an ongoing selection of reading and writing course, as well as a lecture series for inmates at the Arizona Department of Corrections Whetstone Unit. The program began with a generous donation from made to the Department of English by Barbara Martinsons, who teaches sociology and American history in prisons in New York each summer and pioneered prison education in New York City.
Professor, Jake Harwood, presented a lecture on "Communication and Music" recently. He said it was an interesting experience. The program is voluntary and is available to inmates who are within 5 years of release. We asked Dr. Harwood a few questions about the program and what it was like to be a part of it:
How was your experience teaching at AZ Department of Corrections Whetstone Unit different than a university classroom?
The student-inmates were very diverse – they ranged in age from typical college students to people who looked past retirement age. That brought some insights on the material that I would never have had from a traditional college group. One inmate described going to a five-and-dime store in the 1950s and recording his own record – a process I had never heard of before! It was also the first time I’ve ever had an audience dressed exclusively in orange.
What type of engagement in the material did you receive from the students there?
The students were incredibly engaged—more so than most classes I teach at the university. They clearly have a desire to learn, and having someone come and talk to them was a special event in their day. They were also more willing to (respectfully) challenge my ideas than a lot of undergraduate students.
What value, if any, do you feel programs such as this offer to both the inmates and the educator?
My talk was the first in a series being organized by the University of Arizona Prison Partnership. For the inmates, I hope that the series of talks inspires an interest in learning. Education is empowerment, and might offer a route to a better future for people who have made mistakes in their lives. For educators, I think it’s always good to talk to new types of audiences – to get ideas from their comments and to reconsider how you present information. I pretty much ripped up my notes after about 15 minutes because the student-inmates’ contributions were taking the discussion in so many interesting directions. It definitely made me think about how I approach a regular classroom, and how I could create that environment of excitement among even the most jaded undergraduates.