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Prison education was originally is generally believed by its advocates to have a positive impact on recidivism rates; from 1970 to 1995 there were opportunities for education, based on “sections 136 and 137 of the Corrections Law in the State of New York” which required the Department of Correctional Services to assess a prisoner’s “educational and vocational needs” and “provide each inmate with a program of education which seems most likely to further the process of socialization and rehabilitation, the objective being to return these inmates to society with a more wholesome attitude toward living, with a desire to conduct themselves as good citizens, and with the skills and knowledge which will give them a reasonable chance to maintain themselves and their dependents through honest labor.”[1]

In 1994, under a provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Congress eliminated inmate eligibility for Pell Grants. Other funding sources also dried up, and with them such college education programs for the incarcerated. Can we do anything to ameliorate this situation?

The first part of this joint presentation will address two educational initiatives in prison and ask how classics might be an effective part of them. The first is a reading group organized by a group of faculty members at a liberal arts college in lieu of a formal degree-granting program which was deemed unfeasible by the prison authority. The teachers have since shifted to a series of reading groups which includes, but is not limited to, Greco-Roman antiquity. The paper will discuss the ways in which classical material are particularly useful for such a project. The second initiative is a theater program in the prisons, the Medea Project, which began with constructing plays on ancient themes, Medea and Demeter and Persephone.

The second part will bring together the issues of prison education and training for students. The speaker will present a case study of an applied drama class taught at the University of Winchester in the UK. The instructor and students enrolled in this particular module obtain permission to enter a medium security prison and work with prisoners in order to write (or adapt) and subsequently stage a play with and for the inmates. The speaker will argue that classical drama and its modern adaptations (e.g. Soyinka’s Antigone) provide ideal material for such initiatives. S/he will argue that experience of this applied drama class is particularly helpful in that it provides a model for the ways in which we might overcome the compartmentalization of academic endeavors. The model presented functions not only as an outreach initiative, but also as a form of research into drama and human relations and as a teaching method designed to form engaged citizens within and without the academia.

Why should classicists care about prison education? How can we do anything about it? We would claim that as human beings, we should be concerned about the extent of incarceration in our country; we have an ethical responsibility to reach out beyond our privileged surroundings to offer what we have to those less fortunate than ourselves. We will argue that the classics offer fertile terrain for the education of incarcerated men and women who are hungry for a glimpse of the world outside themselves.


[1] “Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison.” Collaborative Research by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Women in Prison at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. September 2001.


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