Key takeaways

  • The Prison Education Program, part of the Center for Justice at UCLA, has been teaching inside carceral facilities for women and juveniles since 2015.
  • Courses, many of them arts-based, provide a shared creative learning experience that benefits both incarcerated people and UCLA students and faculty.
  • On March 15, the program celebrated the culmination of its spoken-word course with a campus event featuring students from UCLA and the Victorville prison facility for women.
  • The program has been chosen as one of the first to begin operating out of the new UCLA Downtown building, helping to deepen the campus’s engagement with the city’s diverse communities.

Each Friday this past winter quarter, a group of about a dozen UCLA students boarded an early-morning bus bound for Victorville Federal Correctional Institute, two hours northeast of Los Angeles, to learn alongside incarcerated women as part of UCLA’s Prison Education Program.

Nearly a decade in operation, the unique program brings together Bruins with women and young people in carceral facilities for collaborative workshops and classes that not only expand access to higher education but challenge society’s biases about those behind bars.

On March 15, in a rare event, the incarcerated students from Victorville traveled to Westwood, where they joined their fellow students from UCLA in “Literary Liberation,” a performance of works that grew out of the winter program’s spoken word, creative writing and performance practicum. It was an emotional moment at the Glorya Kaufman Theater, suffused with expressions of joy, support, hopes and dreams and likewise by fears, frustrations, remembrances and more than a few tears.

In front of an audience of students, faculty, prison officials, and friends and family of both the UCLA students and incarcerated women — including some who had traveled from neighboring states for the occasion —participants presented pieces that touched on topics ranging from personal trauma, motherhood and sisterhood to reproductive rights, political conflicts and the war in Gaza, accompanied by a live band and DJ. There was even a bit of comedy about prison life thrown in for good measure.

Prison Education Program spoken-word perform on stage with angel wings at Glorya Kaufman Theater
Patrick Shao/UCLA Arts
A student in the program performs at UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Theater

Like the program itself, the event sought to inspire members of the audience to question their biases and to reassess how they view people with sometimes radically different life experiences, said Keara Williams, the course’s teaching assistant and a doctoral student at UCLA’s School of Education & Information Studies. Her hope, she said, was that through the revelatory performances, participants and audience members could find themselves “in loving community.”

For class participant Lauryn Gutiérrez, who will graduate from UCLA this year with degrees in political science and psychology and who hopes to someday work with people in the carceral system, the culminating performance was an overwhelmingly  spiritual experience.

“I feel like I am taking away so much from this work — from spending time at the prison and meeting all the women there,” she said. “I feel like I have new skin.”

For many of the dozen or so women from Victorville, the course had been equally transformative. In the printed program for the event, Gina, an incarcerated student, commented that the class allowed her tap into a creativity she hadn’t known she possessed.

“I have found a small part of me that sees myself blossoming into a new artist,” she said. “My dream project would be to write a book when I leave here … it’s never too late to try something new and inspire yourself to grow.”

Gina has already taken a step in that direction. In addition to the final performance, which was made possible by a special allowance from the warden of the Victorville facility, the group of students published an anthology of the works they created together as a keepsake.

The Prison Education Program, under the umbrella of the Center for Justice at UCLA, has been teaching inside facilities for women and juveniles since 2015, after women at the California Institution for Women, a state prison in Chino, wrote letters to UCLA requesting a “Center for Incarceration Studies.” Their proposal called for higher education opportunities to cultivate critical thinking skills and innovative approaches to justice.

Since then, the program has provided courses in seven carceral facilities throughout Southern California. The class offerings span various disciplines but, like the spoken-word practicum at Victorville, are frequently arts-focused. 

The efforts are led by program coordinator Jai Williams and managing director Acacia Warren, along with the Center for Justice’s co-founding directors, Bryonn Bain, a UCLA professor of world arts and cultures/dance and African American studies, and Claudia Peña, a lecturer at UCLA School of Law. The program’s leaders and educators have seen firsthand the impact of their work on incarcerated individuals.

Monica, for example, who participated in a previous course at the Victorville facility, credited her early release from prison to the program’s courses and the way in which they helped her to communicate and think about herself.

“This had a huge impact on my ability to be able to see myself outside of the walls of the prison. I learned (how to) express my life experiences and story through spoken word. Performing in front of the warden and prison staff was, in a word, liberating,” she said. “Without those UCLA courses, I would not have been able to visualize, internalize or express the changes that are possible within myself.”

Prison Education ProgramL Course participants raise their hands together on stage at the conclusion of the performance
Patrick Shao/UCLA Arts
Course participants raise their hands together at the conclusion of the on-campus performance. 

Monica will begin her college journey at California State University, San Marcos, in the fall, studying for a degree in psychology and animal health sciences.

And the program’s transformative work not only continues — it is expanding. In March, it was one of the first community-engaged projects selected to begin operating out of the campus’s new UCLA Downtown building, where it will expand its efforts to make post-secondary education accessible to currently incarcerated women and young people, alongside UCLA students and faculty.

This spring, instructors will teach a prison-based course on vaccines and pandemics and another about women of color in social movements. They’ll also partner with a local community group called A New Way of Life for on-campus classes about Indigenous birthing practices with UCLA students and formerly incarcerated students.

And in the fall, the group will return to Victorville with its Hip Hop Theater Collaborative course, which will culminate in a live theater perfomance written by formerly incarcerated artists and adapted in a creative writing workshop by women at the California Institution for Women.