Prison Arts in Liberal Schools

Above: Students take notes on how to make license plates on a field trip for the Prison Arts program

MAIN CAMPUS – What does Grinnell College have in common with Newton Correctional Facility? Apparently a lot, according to a new campus group called “Prison Arts in Liberal Schools.” The group has created an even stronger relationship with the Newton Correctional Facility. Instead of students going to the prison to teach math or humanities courses, the prisoners come to Grinnell to teach the students about prison life.

Newton Correctional Facility staff members proposed the idea initially.

Paula Lopez, a staff member of the facility, said, “We got the idea after we noticed that the prisoners making furniture for the college were getting invested in the students who would be using it. They kept trying to make it better quality; they even offered to work overtime without pay. But after some discussion, we decided that effectively lowering their wage to 1.00 instead of 1.25 would be unethical.”

Continued Lopez, “Instead, we decided that a great way for the prisoners to become involved would be for them to instruct the students on the unique skills they’ve gained through incarceration.”

“I think that this was the kind of class I’ve been lacking in my liberal arts education,” said Max Weir ‘21, as she and a prisoner gently put the finishing touches on a Poweshiek County license plate. “I never realized how much I loved license plate art until I made this!”

The program also offers more active courses for students who want physical education-style classes. The students are given orange jumpsuits and pick up trash on the side of I-80 while vigorously trying to erase the sight of roadkill from their memories.

“I love getting my heart rate up,” said Lee Taylor ‘18. “Plus it’s just like, nice to get off campus every so often, you know?”

In light of the success of prison classes, the prison program has been expanded even more. Every Wednesday, prisoners and students meet in the Whale Room for “Prison Table.” Prison Table functions like regular language tables, except students and prisoners eat together as though they were in prison.

“Mostly we don’t really talk. We kind of just feel sad and wish we were in the main dining hall,” said one third-year student, and a regular attendee of Prison Table.

“We did bond over our meals though. Apparently, the prisoners get celery root mashed potatoes and Key Largo blend vegetables too!”

“Plus, the new system in the DHall is apparently a lot like the one in prison. The prisoners have to walk around a rope and confusingly drop their silverware into the bucket first too!” they added.

The college administration has started to see the success of the program, and is considering implementing more prison-like policies.

Academic Advising staff member Justine Thomas said, “The program is such a good one-the prisoners get out and get some teaching experience, and the students get some prison experience. It works out well for everyone!

We are hoping to introduce some more policies to give students an even more immersive experience.

By 2018, we are hoping to have a role call in every residence hall at six in the morning. We also want to bring “yard time” to campus. Instead of going to lab classes, students will instead spend three hours inside the fence on Mac Field standing around. We think it will be a great success.”

Finally, the success of Prison Arts in Liberal Schools has led to more program for the semester: bed making. While the prisoners already handcraft the beds in Grinnell’s residence halls, they will also start tucking the students in at night. The students are also given an option to have the prisoners read a prison-themed bedtime story.

“Goodnight room, goodnight moon. Goodnight tiny bar slates and goodnight public toilet,” read a prisoner tenderly, before a student drifted to sleep.