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Literacy Lockup: Education in American Prisons

By Tara Graham
May 20
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Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 12.01.05 AMLiteracy Lockup is a website produced by U.C. Berkeley undergraduate student Katherine Fleeman during the 2013 spring semester.


Prison is often out of sight, out of mind, and therefore not commonly discussed. Prisons are frequently built in rural and economically depressed areas and are therefore far from scrutiny. Security measures – such as prohibiting visitors from bringing in cell phones and cameras — make it difficult to get images or information about prison conditions outside the walls. Furthermore, prison policies tend to affect underrepresented communities such as African Americans and Latin@s. Since these demographics tend to be less affluent and not as visible in politics or national media, their voices are not heard as well. And although it may be waning, tough-on-crime rhetoric makes prison reform a hard sell. Even in the face of events like the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, prisons are simply not on the national agenda in the same way other issues may be.

The prison system is a massive topic, so Literacy Lockup looks specifically at the importance of education in the prison system. The general focus is on academic education as opposed to vocational, such as GED programs and postsecondary education. This type of education is particular in that it focuses not only on trade skills, but on developing intellectual growth as well.

  • The history page looks at the prison throughout American history, showing that the prison is not an everlasting institution. Rather, the prison is influenced and affected by outside policies and politics, and the changing philosophies behind imprisonment affect the way education is integrated into correctional facilities.
  • The impact page shows how prison education has an effect on multiple levels, from the individual inmate to their community to society as a whole.
  • The blog highlights current education programs and media coverage. A common theme throughout the blog is the importance of volunteers, and the way their relationships with prison officials affect their work.

The current system is clearly broken. How can education help fix it?

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When life got dicey, I opened my closet doors, bypassed the blouses, and earned a (modest) payday by selling used hangers in 25-pack bundles.

More recently, I put my hustle into play at 500 Startups, the world’s most active venture capital fund and startup accelerator, where I led content, branding, marketing, operations, and corporate partnerships for business development and global programs.

Before transitioning into tech, I worked in higher education, teaching online research and media production classes across a variety of disciplines at the University of California, Berkeley. During that time, I also worked as the Director and Executive Producer of Digital Media Projects at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, where I co-founded and led The #GlobalPOV Project, a mixed-media approach to thinking about poverty, inequality, and undertaking poverty action.

In addition, I was the Director of Media at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where I had the opportunity to interview Bashar al-Assad in his presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, in late December of 2010. I asked Assad if he considered himself a dictator. He dodged the inquiry, but his actions in the immediate weeks, months, and years to follow answered the question . . . and then some. Sadly.

Before that, I was a practicing journalist and graduate fellow at the University of Southern California. During that time, I worked as a web reporter and photographer for KCET’s “SoCal Connected,”​ as an online editor for the London-based New Statesman magazine, and as the co-editor-in-chief of USC Annenberg’s award-winning digital news website. I got my start in journalism as a full-time associate editor (and employee #20!) at P✪PSUGAR, a Sequoia-backed content and commerce startup turned global media empire.

My freelance reporting has been featured in NBC, CBS, and ABC news broadcasts and in online publications, including The Huffington Post. I have also done manuscript editing for various authors with recognized commercial and university presses.

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