Prison Education Project

We are advancing the educational work in the prison system – one student at a time.

About the Program

The Prison Education Project is an initiative of the Department of English to teach in the local state prison system. This project was made possible with the support of Barbara Martinson, a friend of our department with a passion for advancing educational work in the prison system.  With her help, the department is now expanding this ambitious outreach project in the Arizona State Prison Complex. 

The project began in Spring 2017 when a team of faculty and graduate students team-taught a non-credit reading course at the Whetstone Unit in the Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson.  Several of the student participants were veterans in the Whetstone Prison's Regaining Honor unit, so the theme of honor was central to that first course.  

In Fall 2017 project focus turned to rhetorical awareness, critical thinking and composing, reflection and revision as well as conventions. Then Spring 2018 brought focus on personal awareness, societal awareness, rhetorical awareness, and reflection and revision.

The instructors teach the close-reading of essays, short stories and poems to help ready incarcerated students for college-level work. Students improve their critical reading and comprehension skills, gain rhetorical awareness, and engage the readings in order to reflect on their lives and hopes for the future. 

Some students in the initial class took the initiative to publish a prison newspaper.  Whetstone Whirl began publication in fall 2017.  Staffed at the outset by volunteers and published every other month, the newspaper has grown to a monthly publication with a staff of 7 workers.  The focus of the newspaper is health and fitness, pop culture, poetry, and recovery.

The project expanded in Spring 2018 to include a broad-based faculty speaker series open to all interested inmates on a wide range of topics including: "The most important musical event. Ever", "The Hidden Language of Art", and "What Does Elephant Trauma Have to do with Humans?".

English has a long history of conducting this kind of work.  Emeritus Regents Professor Richard Shelton began teaching creative writing workshops in Arizona prisons forty-six years ago. He eventually wrote about those experiences in his famous memoir, Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.  With support from a Lannon Foundation grant to the UA Poetry Center, Professor Shelton founded Rain Shadow Review, a journal that collects literary work by inmates.  For the last ten years, Shelton’s labors have been continued by Professor Erec Toso, who continues to conduct creative writing workshops for inmates.

In conjunction with these outreach programs in the Tucson Prison Complex, Professor Erec Toso is teaching an undergraduate course on prison writing for UA students.  In addition to encountering the history of American prison writing, and meeting with well-known prison writers, students have the opportunity to read and edit the work to be published in Rain Shadow Review. Our faculty and students are excited at this opportunity to expand educational opportunities for inmates while also raising awareness among University of Arizona students about the history as well as the present-day conditions of the American prison system.

Getting Involved

To join the instructors in this project, email your interest to If you would like to support our work, please consider contributing to the Prison Education Project fund at the UA Foundation.

Our team of instructors