The importance of education in prisons has become widely recognized, yet instructors and students often struggle to obtain needed resources. To help address this gap, Sheila Smith McKoy and Patrick Elliot Alexander created the anthology Teaching Literature and Writing in Prisons, which offers perspectives and practices from incarcerated and nonincarcerated teachers and students. Here the editors explain what makes their volume a timely and trenchant addition to the fields of literary pedagogy, writing studies, and critical prison studies.

MLA: How did you begin working with incarcerated students, and how would you advise instructors who are new to teaching incarcerated students?

SSM: Early in my graduate program, I was drawn to apply for a position with a nonprofit organization focused on teaching literacy skills to women who were incarcerated, some of whom were awaiting the birth of their children during their incarceration. I joined the project at an early enough stage that I was able to contribute to the curriculum while teaching in the program. The experience was life-altering for me as a graduate student and single parent, working alongside my students to contribute positively to our children. Together, we opened the door for them to explore literature and to witness their progress as class leaders, teachers, and writers. It helped mitigate the trauma they had already experienced in their lives and the trauma they would experience while incarcerated. I also came to realize that the stigma and educational interruption they experienced was quite close to that experienced by my uncle and his family members when he was incarcerated in the 1970s. Teaching literature and writing in prisons contributes to the personal resilience of both students and instructors and provides frameworks for life beyond incarceration.

PEA: I also began supporting incarcerated students while in graduate school. I saw learners in prisons and jails as some of our nation’s most neglected students. I still do. Upon working as a community volunteer and literary tutor with educational initiatives in two different prisons, I learned that too often, incarceration experiences are preceded and accompanied by systemic undereducation, unequal access to education, and militarized learning environments. That awareness moved me, as a doctoral student, to assist instructors in a respected higher-education-in-prison (HEP) program and to cofound and direct an initiative that supported two major expressed needs of its incarcerated students: access to educational support services and skills development in academic writing, creative writing, and public speaking. That experience informed and inspires the work that I have done now for nearly a decade as the cofounder and director of an HEP program in the South. I encourage those who are new to teaching incarcerated students to center the educational goals and intellectual curiosities of these students as they support them. Such a student-centered paradigm equips and empowers students to expand the desired range of their educational attainment possibilities, leadership commitments, and, for many, postincarceration outcomes.

MLA: What principles informed the creation of this collection?

SSM and PEA: This project provides deep explorations of the impact of teaching literature and writing in prisons from the perspectives of instructors, students, and organizations. One of the most compelling aspects of our book is that the wisdom circle includes contributions from incarcerated and nonincarcerated authors. Readers will also have the opportunity to better understand that teaching in prisons and jails has an impact on both the teachers and the students.

As we reflect on our own experiences teaching in prison, we know that incarcerated students have enriched approaches to engaged literary study and generative writing pedagogies—and to working in as genuinely collaborative a way as possible in a carceral setting. Our shared understanding about the weightiness of incarcerated students’ insights is precisely what motivated us to ensure that this collection includes a range of contributions from both incarcerated and nonincarcerated authors.

MLA: What makes this volume especially timely?

SSM and PEA: Teachers have been challenged in recent years to be more proactive in identifying and implementing genuinely inclusive pedagogies in the learning communities we serve. Simultaneously, public support for HEP programs has increased, to some degree, with a moderate rise in privately funded and volunteer-supported college-in-prison programs and the recent reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for students in prison. So the release of this volume coincides with a historical moment in which dialogue abounds about what achieving real educational justice looks like and what a more robust experience of expanded educational access can mean for incarcerated students. Notably, our collection engages these conversations by centering an abolitionist perspective. This means that we and our contributors consider how we can pursue ethically responsible approaches for supporting the needs of incarcerated readers, writers, and learners. It also means that this volume foregrounds strategies for teaching literature and writing in prison that affirm humanity and agency in carceral spaces that are not designed to nurture either.

MLA: What advances would you like to see in critical prison studies and in teaching literature and writing in prisons?

SSM and PEA: By centering critical prison studies scholarship in this volume, we hope to raise awareness about the historical significance of teaching literature and writing in environments shaped intensely by confinement. Further, we hope our interdisciplinary approach can inspire more critical engagements with, among other subjects, abolitionist pedagogies.

MLA: What will instructors gain from using this volume?

SSM and PEA: Instructors will gain access to a wealth of best practices on course development, pedagogical strategies, and approaches to publishing students’ scholarly and creative work in a carceral context. Instructors will also be prepared to navigate the political, legal, and professional terrain of teaching in prisons and jails. As importantly, they will benefit from hearing from the students and instructors, both those who are incarcerated and those who are not, who contribute to this vital work.

Photo of Sheila Smith McKoy

Sheila Smith McKoy

Sheila Smith McKoy is vice provost of equity, inclusion, and faculty excellence at the University of San Francisco and previously taught literature and writing at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. She is a poet, literary critic, fiction writer, and documentary filmmaker whose books include When Whites Riot: Writing Race and Violence in American and South African Cultures, The Elizabeth Keckley Reader: Writing Self, Writing Nation, The Elizabeth Keckley Reader: Artistry, Culture and Commerce, and the poetry collection The Bones Beneath, forthcoming in 2024; she is coauthor of One Window’s Light: A Haiku Collection. With LaJuan Simpson-Wilkey and Eric Bridges, Smith McKoy is coeditor of Recovering the African Feminine Divine in Literature, the Arts, and Practice: Yemonja Awakening. Smith McKoy is actively involved in mental health reform, faculty and BIPOC leadership initiatives, education in prisons, restorative and research justice, and international and transnational engagement.

Photo of Patrick Elliot Alexander

Patrick Elliot Alexander

Patrick Elliot Alexander is associate professor of English and African American studies at the University of Mississippi and cofounder and director of the Mississippi Humanities Council Award–winning Prison-to-College Pipeline Program. He is the author of From Slave Ship to Supermax: Mass Incarceration, Prisoner Abuse, and the New Neo–Slave Novel, and his articles on teaching African American literature in prison appear in Humanities, the Journal of African American History, South: A Scholarly Journal, and Reflections: A Journal of Writing, Service-Learning, and Community Literacy.  In 2020, Alexander was honored with the University of Mississippi Humanities Teacher of the Year Award, and in 2021, he received the University of Mississippi Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award. In 2023, he was inducted into the L. C. Dorsey Research Honor Society for his scholarship on higher education in prison in the South.