July 20 2024

Opening My Eyes: Teaching in a Women’s Prison

by Elizabeth M. Bounds, Emory University

If I keep my eyes shut, there is nothing unusual about this class except perhaps that all the student voices are female.

The teacher asks, “How do you think David is portrayed here?” There is silence, a ruffling of pages, as texts are consulted. The question is asked again.

“In some different ways,” one woman says tentatively.

More voices come in and soon there is full exploration of the text and discussion of the character of King David.

But if I open my eyes, everything changes. I am in a room with several formica-topped tables, each with a group of women. The windows look out on a parallel set of windowed classrooms. The walls are concrete, institutional, and nondescript. There are no computers to be seen and the blackboards lack chalk. The women are black and white, of various ages. Some have old-fashioned black-rimmed glasses and some have heavy black shoes. Some have blunt-cut hair while others have perms and eyeshadow. But all are dressed alike, in loose-fitting, buttoned khaki chino shirts and pants. Each shirt has on the back “DOC” in large black letters, and many of the shirts have small black numbers or last names on their breast pockets.

We are in a women’s prison in Georgia, in a class required for a one-year certificate in theological studies sponsored by the Atlanta Theological Association, a consortium of seminaries.1 The women have all applied for admission, stating their desire to study theology. They all have at least a GED and have to be free of disciplinary reports (DRs2) for the last six months. The teachers are a mix of master’s students from ATA schools and doctoral students from Emory. While I taught classes before I cofounded this program, now I am the administrator, working with our codirectors to select teachers and to supervise the teaching, and, most importantly, ensuring the survival of our program.

In terms of pedagogies and classroom experiences, as I suggested above, teaching in prison is like many other kinds of teaching in colleges or in seminaries. You are concerned with the different learning styles, background preparation, and experiences of your students. But the context demands very specific considerations that are not to be found in most classroom environments.

Teacher Authority Plays Out against Prison Authority

Prison authority is paramount—inescapable. It begins with the challenges of entering a prison, which vary according to state and to the security level of the prison. Even when you do have approval, you cannot simply bring in whatever materials you wish. Only certain types of pens are acceptable; wire-bound notebooks are impossible as the wire could be undone and used for a weapon; certain DVDs may be suspect. After teaching for a while, you start to think like the prison—for example, before a book is chosen, I imagine what an officer might think if she or he saw the book among an inmate’s possessions. And careful as you may be, you can be caught short if a rule has been changed or if an officer checking your bag at the entry gate is under pressure or at the end of an eighteen-hour shift. You also keep in mind the ways material can be seized, bartered, flaunted, etc. You begin to see pens, folders, and notebooks in new ways: not just as tools of learning, but items of value in a starved and limited economy. Indeed they are of value to teachers too as every class or program I know runs on almost no funds.

Your classes can be shortened for a variety of reasons, especially if there is a problem requiring that the entire system is locked down so an accurate count of inmates can be determined (counts happen several times a day). Persons in your class may have to leave because of a medical appointment, or they may not arrive at your class because of some problem with the officer on their home range. You may find out classes are cancelled because of a lice outbreak or because of Christmas package distribution.

As a teacher, you stand in a middle position. Certainly you have authority in the classroom, not just because you are the teacher, but simply because you are not incarcerated. On the other hand, in some ways, your authority, like your students, is subject to the law of the prison. These middle places are, in my view, richly complex. While they can be frustrating, they enable me to have some small sense of what our women students experience. They are also some of the many places where students teach me.

Your Teaching Tools Are Often “Old Fashioned”—Pen, Paper, Students, Teacher

For a long time, the one classroom tool I could count on was the blackboard (the real one). However, no chalk or erasers in prison—carry your own! TVs and DVD players are locked away requiring planning and, sometimes, searching. But new technologies are entering the prison world, especially in credit-bearing programs, like AA or BA programs. All of the women where we work now have tablets, and we will soon be able to set up course readings that can be downloaded. But the lack of technology signals something else: the isolation in which prisoners necessarily exist. In that isolation, one dimension of the teacher’s role, which has often been less visible in a culture that puts little value on education, is heightened. You are deeply aware that you are a mentor because you may be one of the few people interacting with inmates who is not employed by the Department of Corrections. You are very visible to your students and represent something of the “outside” world that can seem far away. You matter.

Your Students Deeply Value the Learning Experience, Which Is Often Entirely New To Them

One of the key features of teaching in a prison is the intensity of the desire to learn. Every new teacher in our program is surprised and delighted by this. There is no right to education, although there are efforts to provide GEDs for the large number of prisoners without high school diplomas (and even access to this may be limited to those with only a few years to release). But the possibilities of any further education are limited. Access to Pell Grants to support college education was banned in the mid-90s. A 2011 study suggested that among the total incarcerated population, only 6% have access to formal postsecondary educational opportunities, of which perhaps 75% are vocationally oriented certificates (e.g., cosmetology, plumbing, etc.) (Gorgol and Sponsler, 2011).

There is a growing interest in educational access since studies suggest that greater education means fewer persons returning to prison—the prime argument that every prison education program has to make. And I can certainly make the argument that our students develop skills in reading, writing, and critical thinking. But what delights our teachers is not really the skill acquisition but rather the sense that what is taught and learned matters. While some of the women had good experiences in primary and secondary schools, most of them did not. Sometimes they simply did not pay attention, but more often, I suspect, no one was really interested in their learning or thought they had the capacity to learn. In prison they realize both that they can learn and that they like learning.

As one student put it,While in the theology courses, I finally had something that challenged my mind, spirit, and soul. I learned more in six months … than I thought was even possible to learn in that short amount of time. The more I learned in the theology course, the more I wanted to learn.”

Distinctions between Theological Frameworks and Religious Studies Frameworks Look Different3

Although our program is in Christian theology, we do offer courses with comparative dimensions, such as African Influence in Islam, Judaism and Islam, and Buddhist Meditation (here it helps to have access to doctoral students in religious studies at Emory!). However, distinctions like emic versus etic are simply not that relevant. Everything learned is incorporated personally and reflectively. However, our program, unlike the majority of religious-related programming in prisons, is not about evangelism or faith-oriented therapies. Our classes are places of critical reflection practiced through teacher-student and student-student engagement. While the students are predominantly Christian, and many of them from conservative backgrounds, we also have students practicing Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, Messianic Judaism, and nothing at all. Our classes are places where theo-religious exploration is encouraged, not judged or cut off. As one student put it, “The theology certificate program gives me the chance to study God on my own terms.”

While openness and exploration are fairly standard guidelines for teaching in religious studies, there is at least one key difference. Disagreement means something different when people have to live together, twenty-four-hours a day/seven-days a week, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The stakes can be very high.


In the midst of these constraints and possibilities, students and teachers in our program practice remarkable creativity. As prison educator Rob Scott puts it, “Displaced from the participants' natural home environment, people can discover new potentials precisely because no one is in their ‘comfort zone’" (Scott 2013). Texts and questions in theology and religious studies take on new meanings. As one teacher, a MDiv student, said, “Something remarkable happens when you take the very text you are reading in a seminary class on systematic theology and read it with a room full of women in prison. Words begin to mean different things and theoretical concepts are brought to bear in the messy, contorted, but very real lives of women today. Theological education is freed from confinements of privilege and domination and unleashed.”


1 For information about the certificate in theological studies see http://candler.emory.edu/programs-resources/institutes-initiatives/certificate-theological-studies.html

2 DR is shorthand for a "disciplinary report," which is a report of a rule violation written by an officer or other staff member. A Disciplinary Committee reviews the report, questions the offender and any witnesses, examines any evidence, and makes a ruling regarding the offender's action. Dismissal will erase the charge from an inmate’s record, while a guilty verdict will carry a sanction, usually a set amount of time in solitary confinement (“lockdown”). An inmate’s DR record can determine privileges and parole approval.

3 Thanks to Thomas Fabisiak and Sarah Farmer, the current codirectors of the certificate program, for help with this section.


Castro, Erin L., Michael Brawn, Daniel E. Graves, Orlando Mayorga, Johnny Page, and Andra Slater. 2015. "Higher Education in an Era of Mass Incarceration: Possibility under Constraint." Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs Vol. 1, Article 2.

Gorgol, Laura E., and Brain A. Sponsler. 2016. “Unlocking potential: Results of a national survey of postsecondary education in state prison.” Institute for Higher Education Policy May 2011. http://www.ihep.org/research/publications/unlocking-potential-results-national-survey-postsecondary-education-state

Irwin, Tracy. 2008. “The ‘Inside’ Story: Practitioner Perspectives on Teaching in Prison.” The Howard Journal 47 (5): 512–527.

Lempert, Lora, Suzanne Bergeron, and Maureen Linker. 2005. “Negotiating the Politics of Space: Teaching Women's Studies in a Women's Prison.” NWSA Journal 17 (2): 199–207.

Parrotta, Kylie, and Gretchen H. Thompson. 2011. “Sociology of the Prison Classroom: Marginalized Identities and Sociological Imaginations Behind Bars,” Teaching Sociology 39 (2): 165–178.  

Scott, Robert. 2013. “Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison,” Radical Teacher 95: 22–32.

Liz BoundsAs associate professor of Christian ethics at the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University, Bounds’s research, teaching, and scholarship is focused on moral and theological responses to conflict and violence, whether in the US prison system, ordinary congregational life, or post-conflict situations such as Liberia. She is the author of Coming Together/Coming Apart: Religion, Modernity, and Community (Routledge, 1997), coeditor of Welfare Policy: Feminist Critiques and Justice in the Making: Feminist Social Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1999), and has authored several essays in edited volumes. She is the administrator and cofounder of the Certificate in Theological Studies Program at the Arrendale State Prison for Women in Georgia.

Photo: A student raises his hand in a English seminar facilitated by Cornell University at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Credit: Cornell Prison Education Program.