Date of Award

Spring 1994

Project Type


Program or Major

Reading and Writing Instruction

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Jane Hansen


This qualitative study investigates the writing of women in prison as a tool to care for themselves and others. The inmates participated in a student-centered, socially contextualized, process writing class whereby they could write for their own purposes, and share and publish their writing. The study presents case studies of two women who were also involved in a peer-tutoring program (one serving as the tutor for the other) and who used their literacies extensively on their own time outside of the classroom.

Many of our nation's inmates are considered illiterate by standardized, school-based measures. Some participate in correctional education programs that primarily focus on decontextualized instructional methods that have a narrow definition of literacy. Also, some inmates are denied full access to education programs because of their institution's conflicting paradigms of punishment and rehabilitation.

The data were teaching records, open-ended interviews, observations of inmate students, student writing logs and writing samples, including personal journals. The data analysis was informed by the feminist inquiries of Nel Noddings (1984), Carol Gilligan (1982, 1990), and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger & Tarule (1986). The primary uses for the inmates' self-sponsored writing were relationally oriented, and centered on the women's need to reestablish and maintain a caring network with significant people in their lives, most often with their children. In learning to care for others, the women were better able to take care of themselves and receive the caring of others. Other significant uses for writing included creating a personal history, grieving the death of a child, and aiding recovery from substance abuse.

Participatory literacy education in prison integrates personal and academic literacies. Process classrooms, inmate-taught classes, and peer tutoring offer students and inmate teachers opportunities not only to discover their own voice of authority as learners and instructors, but also to care for themselves and others in the context of their lives and in more meaningful preparation for returning to the world outside of prison.