‘Bridging’ an Academic Divide

Faculty and Students Bring Writing Course to D.C. Corrections Facilities

Writing while imprisoned has a pedigreed history: Henry David Thoreau did it, along with Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Now, thanks to the efforts of UMD faculty and students, those incarcerated by Washington, D.C.’s Department of Corrections are learning how to pen their own thoughts and stories from behind bars.

Associate Professor of English and Honors College Executive Director Peter Mallios and doctoral student Elizabeth Catchmark are working alongside UMD undergraduates to help students in jail learn the techniques and nuances of different forms of writing.

The work is part of a college bridge program developed and operated by the nonprofit Petey Greene Program to support current and formerly incarcerated learners who have a high school credential but seek to improve their writing or math skills in preparation for college.

“We teach writing as a civic act,” says Catchmark. “We argue that writing is a method of empowerment.”

Through the PGP’s virtual program, participants have access to a tablet at certain hours, during which they can watch the lectures from Mallios and Catchmark, get one-on-one support from undergraduate tutors and work on assignments. The goal is to prepare students for higher education and job opportunities while helping them unlock their own abilities.

The course is centered around understanding written arguments, crafting them and developing a philosophy of writing. Students read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” as examples of effective writing and ultimately compose an essay exploring “what kind of writer they want to be, what their values are as a writer and how their experiences have shaped those values,” says Catchmark.

“We teach writing as a civic act. We argue that writing is a method of empowerment.”

Elizabeth Catchmark Doctoral student

Next spring, she and Mallios plan to introduce a companion 15-week course to UMD students, starting with six weeks of learning about mass incarceration, prison education and tutoring techniques, followed by participation in the PGP’s tutoring program.

Mallios was drawn to the Petey Greene Program after having taught incarcerated students at Goucher College. Kayla Foster ’21 was president of UMD’s chapter of the PGP, inspired to join after reading “Just Mercy,” attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of his work with disadvantaged clients. She estimates that she’s worked with some 10 to 15 students, helping them with GED preparation and math courses.

For Foster, nurturing one-on-one pedagogical relationships with her students has been at least as important as improving their writing skills. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is the importance of building trust and looking at the whole person,” she says.

The effects have been palpable for many students, who describe the program as “challenging” and “a pleasure,” and say it’s given them confidence and perspective. “This course help[s] me to learn more things about myself,” wrote one student in feedback. “I feel a [sense] of gratitude just being a part of the program,” wrote another.

Foster says that her experience volunteering in jails led her to her current work at a community center in Queens, N.Y., that offers services and programming to people who have had interactions with the justice system. “Getting involved exposed me to the social justice realm and made me realize this is something I can do for a career,” she says.


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