Teaching the arts inside a maximum security prison

Reading her poetic letter to the man she murdered silences the classroom. The professor and students listen respectfully as she recounts the abuse she and her sister endured, the catalyst for her actions.

This alternative college-level classroom rests within a women’s maximum-security prison, taught by Georgia State professor Katherine Perry. Previously volunteering her time to teach at women’s correctional facilities in Alabama, Perry is now on the board of directors for the nonprofit organization Reforming Arts, which offers liberal arts education to women’s prisons, such as theater, graphic noveling and creative writing.

Upon teaching her first class in prison in 2004 when she was a graduate student at Auburn University, Perry was “totally hooked,” feeling that something had switched inside her. This was her drive to make a difference.

“I never had students like that who just hung on every word,” Perry said. “Who were completely grateful for me to just be there.”

And as an educator, that’s exactly what Perry wanted. 

When colleague and friend Kyes Stevens, who first introduced Perry to the unconventional undertaking, received a grant to launch the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project, Perry became Stevens’s first teacher to join alongside her. Then connecting with Wende Ballew, the founder of Reforming Arts, in 2010 when she moved to Georgia, Perry has continued her work.

Through her time teaching in women’s correctional facilities, Perry was shocked to find that contrary to her initial expectations, she did not fear the people in prison but rather the prison itself.

“Prison is very dehumanizing,” she said. 

She explained there is a lack of expression for incarcerated people because they are assigned numbers, hyper-scheduled and not permitted to convey their personalities through clothing.

Teaching mostly poetry through Reforming Arts, Perry noted that in expressing themselves through the written word, inmates can communicate their individual differences, these variations of human experience ultimately serving as the very thing that brings them together. 

Perry compared this phenomenon as a commonality with every college class she has taught, stating that friendships often form in any discussion-heavy course on any type of campus. However, the conversations are especially heavy in maximum-security correctional institutions. 

For example, in 2015, Perry taught a poetry class at Lee Arrendale State Prison the day after the state had executed Kelly Gissendaner, the first woman in Georgia to have been sentenced to death in 70 years. Her students knew Gissendaner and because the prison had allowed her to complete a certification program, they did not believe that the execution would proceed. 

“You could feel just plain sadness in the air,” Perry said.

Perry scrapped her previously arranged lesson plan for the day and instead asked her class to simply write and then read aloud their pieces while positioned in a circle. 

Perry stressed that she is not certified to conduct group therapy, but she could offer the ability to write and to then talk about that writing. 

“[It is] probably not the best pedagogy in the world to let people sit and cry through something, but we all came away feeling like we weren’t alone in that sadness,” Perry said. “There was nothing we could do, but we could support each other, and part of education is getting to know other human beings on the planet. I felt like I made a difference that day.”

Perry feels that writing saved her life. She, like most artists, creates because she feels like she has to. Perry stressed the importance of reader-response theory, which states that “a text doesn’t exist unless [it has] a writer and reader,” explaining that the release one experiences from writing is only half of the feat’s importance. Proceeding to then communicate personal thoughts is essential in understanding that no one is alone.

Perry explained that Ballew often takes this idea one step further with the push for theater through Reforming Arts. The process of creating a written work that one can practice, perform and master offers the ability to feel a sense of control over the content that the students want, or need, to communicate. 

Perry is careful to critique students’ work on literary merit as opposed to subject matter. She treats it the same as any other academic class, careful to talk about the “speaker” of a poem rather than assume the poet is the speaker themselves.

It takes a long time for students to open up and some never do, but towards the end of the course, several people in the classes, ranging from 10 to 20 individuals, trust Perry enough to express themselves fully and deeply. 

In order to establish trust, Perry explained that she has to repetitively maintain truth to her word and convey fairness as much as possible.

“If you promise them something, you better follow through because they believe no one will because no one ever has,” she said.

Classrooms within prisons also differ from the mainstream as access to the internet is nonexistent and limited libraries often do not provide enough material. 

“In the free world, we don’t even realize how privileged we are,” Perry said. 

To compensate for this lack of educational supplies, Perry must ensure that she provides enough information to her students so that they can complete the work assigned. 

Another difference is that power dynamics are intensely concentrated within prisons. Small things that people would not think about on the outside serve as unwritten rules that could be the difference between life and death. 

“I try to be really careful,” Perry said. “Don’t give a pen to one student that you don’t give to every student.” 

Likewise, the mood of a classroom dramatically shifts every time that an officer walks in. Perry learned early on that if that scenario occurs, she has to be the person to speak until the officer leaves the room. 

This ensures that personal information stays within the classroom, as she regards her class as a safe space where if anyone were to discuss information outside of the class, they would no longer be able to partake in the course.

At the end of the course, students are given a certificate from Reforming Arts, a highly important piece of the organization. The certificates serve as a product that individuals can feel proud of and show their families who are on the outside, often sending them home.

Perry explained that the course strengthens parent relationships with their children who are on the outside. Sometimes, students send books that they read in class back home so that their children can read them too and they can talk about the literature together. Likewise, students’ academic confidence grows, allowing them to feel comfortable on a phone-call with their children in helping them with their schoolwork.

“[It’s like],’Oh, wait. You mean I can be a college student?” Perry said. “They’ve been fed their whole life a completely different narrative.”

Currently, Reforming Arts is working to partner with Georgia State to offer college credit for courses taken through the organization. Students have applied for the initiative but have not yet been accepted. Perry hopes the advancement occurs in January, though it could happen this upcoming summer. 

Perry noted that people are no longer as shocked as they once were to find out about her work within prisons. 

“[America is] spending dollars on imprisoning people, not educating them,” Perry said.

Perry also said that people are in favor of using the arts as a basis for prison education because physical products are created in the process, whether it be a play, a poem or a painting. 

“Some really amazing stuff comes out [of prison],” she said. “More people can draw [than those] that know that they can draw. They just need someone to teach them how.”

The kind of art that comes out of prisons is generally dark, painting consisting of “a lot of clocks and chain.”

Although she agrees that some people do deserve to be separated from society, Perry believes that most incarcerated people do not. 

“When I leave a prison class, I have a really strong awareness that I get to walk free and that the people that I’ve been trying my best to treat as equals don’t. It’s not when I get in. It’s when I leave and that door clanks behind me and it separates us in the hierarchy [of life].”

About Prof. Perry

  • Has been teaching in prisons for 15 years.
  • Teaches English on Georgia State’s Decatur campus
  • In talks with Georgia State to offer prisoners college credit for the classes that they take.