The University of Arizona English Department, with the encouragement of the state of Arizona, has initiated a writing and literary program to rehabilitate prisoners, reports The Arizona Wildcat.
They started the Prison Education Project, now called Prison Instruction to Change Minds (PRISM) last spring and enroll up to 20 inmates each term. The goal of the curriculum is to improve prisoners’ critical thinking and comprehension skills, gain rhetorical awareness, and engage with the texts to reflect on their lives and hopes for the future.
“Part of the overall purpose of the program is to reach out to a community that is underserved and give them a sense of purpose—that they are doing something constructive with their time,” said Marcia Klotz, project director and assistant professor in the department of English.
“There is something profound about having that kind of interaction, being able to come into a group that has such a deep appreciation for what you are able to help them with,” Klotz told Arizona Wildcat reporter Tori Tom.
The fall program which started Oct.4, is not an accredited course, instead it offers certificates of completion.
“I would love to have these classes count for credit,” Klotz said. “That’s the long-term goal.”
A high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate is a prerequisite to enroll in the classes.
The Arizona Department of Corrections population data showed the Tucson prison complex housed 4,963 inmates in September, of which 2,230 qualified for PRISM in Whetstone and Catalina facilities, according to the article.
“We would like to expand (the program,)” said Klotz. “There’s a lot more interest than we can accommodate.”
Bryan A. Smith, convicted in California in 1982 for attempted robbery, second degree murder, and attempted murder, is both a University of Arizona psychology graduate (class of 2012), and a mitigation specialist for the Pima County Public Defender’s Office.
Smith conducts local motivational talks to tell his story and convince inmates that they too can succeed academically. Smith said he, like other inmates, always assumed that he was academically inadequate and that “college is not for them.”
The 55-year-old Smith, a former inmate at San Quentin State Prison, spent 26 years of his life behind bars, and obtained an Associates of Arts Degree in 2003 through San Quentin State Prison’s Patten University Project.
“Growing up, I never thought I’d be able to get a higher education,” Smith said. “But I realized at some point that ‘I’m going to graduate to get a degree.’ This energized my future and opened up my world.
“The reason why I am an activist for education in a prison system is because it is a very strong activity for personal transformation,” Smith said. “Taking those preparatory classes, getting the individual help, seeing my peers do it and the environment [all] helped me grow to learn about myself.”
PRISM plans to broaden the program for inmates next semester by having any retired or current faculty members come to lecture for a day.
The purpose of this expansion is to expose Whetstone inmates to more classes, in the event that they decide to pursue a college education upon their release from prison.