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This was first published in PJP’s Nov. 2021 newsletter, “Inside Story: Under the Hood.”

University and graduate level journalism education is expensive and out of reach for many people even on the outside. A formal journalism education is not a prerequisite to be a journalist, but you still need a high level of education, connections and some financial means to subsidize a freelance income.  We think these are some of the reasons that have contributed to our industry’s tendency to be exclusive and (dare we say) elitist. These are also insurmountable barriers for our incarcerated writers. 

That’s why we officially launched PJP J-School, our first correspondence-based journalism course tailored for prison writers in August with a cohort of 15 students around the country. 

Our first cohort of students were selected from among our 360+ writers because of the passion and raw talent they demonstrated in the work they had submitted to us, regardless of educational background. Some were editors of their prison newspapers; some were PJP contributing writers and others are writers who brought a keen sense of observation and a strong willingness to take their writing to the next level. 

Our first course focuses on reported essays because the most common writing opportunities offered inside prisons were essay, memoir and poetry writing. Our reported essay class aims to build upon their personal observations by weaving in elements of reportage, such as interviews, data and other sources materials like commissary lists or memos from the administrators. We think their personal experiences can be a powerful window into the larger issue of mass incarceration.

The PJP course is built around 10 modules and is grounded in the fundamentals of journalism. News writing, inverted pyramid, interviewing, reporting and AP style are just some of the concepts our students learn. We have an amazing volunteer faculty of veteran journalists and university-level journalism educators who create the handouts with detailed lesson plans for each module. 

Each handout provides assignments for our students to test their conceptual and practical understanding of the material. We also provide an overview section in the lesson plans to highlight key concepts we want our students to remember. We send a packet in the mail to our students every month with the lesson plan and any associated reading material. They send back their assignments by mail when they complete them. 

That’s where we have hit our biggest challenge so far. Mail delays in some prisons have prevented some of our writers from receiving their assignments in a timely fashion. On top of that, most of our writers send their assignments back also through snail mail, which can also take lengthy processing times. We ask our writers to try and return their homework within a month, but as we enter November, we are still waiting on a couple assignments from August. 

Once we receive the assignments, we divide them among the faculty, so we can send back individual feedback on top of a general feedback for the class as a whole. It hasn’t been easy, but we have been impressed with the dedication of our students, and we’re already seeing improvements in their writing.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shaheen Pasha is Prison Journalism Project's co-founder and serves as chief education officer.

Shaheen is an assistant teaching professor at Penn State University, focused on mass incarceration and prison education. Prior to that, Shaheen was an assistant professor at UMass Amherst, where she launched an immersive explanatory journalism class at the Hampshire County Jail, bringing incarcerated and UMass students together to learn.

Shaheen was awarded the Knight Nieman Visiting Fellowship to expand her work teaching journalism behind bars. She is a veteran journalist with over 20 years of experience at outlets such as Thomson Reuters, CNNMoney and Dow Jones/WSJ.