LIberal Arts in Prison Program

The Rhodes College Liberal Arts in Prison Program offers credit-bearing courses to incarcerated students at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary.  

Two people in front of a blackboard.
Caption: Madison Zickgraf (’21) and Carly, a former student of the program.


The Rhodes College Liberal Arts in Prison Program began with a vision to offer incarcerated students a version of the Search Program that has been a signature part of the Rhodes curriculum since 1946. The result was The Great Books Reading Group, which began in the fall of 2016 at the Women's Therapeutic Residential Center (WTRC), a wing of the West Tennessee Penitentiary in Henning, TN. Twenty-five residents of WTRC wrote essays indicating their desire to participate in such a program, and seven Rhodes professors volunteered to teach a book of their choice.

Beginning in January 2017 the Great Books Reading Group met for sixteen Monday evenings in the Computer Room at WTRC. In fall 2017 the Great Books Reading Group moved to the Culinary Arts classroom and went to a 14-week semester and a syllabus of six books. The Great Books Reading Group continued during the spring and fall of 2018 with 14-week sessions. The spring 2019 Great Books Reading Group was the first to make JPay computer tablets available for all students.

In mid-2019, the Liberal Arts in Prison Program adopted a for-credit academic program consisting of four three-credit courses, Culture & Values 1-4, with a Certificate in Liberal Arts to be granted upon completion of these four courses. Eighteen of the 57 incarcerated women who applied for the Culture & Values program were accepted and classes commenced in September, 2019. In spring 2020 the program went remote, relying on Zoom for class sessions and JPay tablets for quizzes, lectures, and other assignments. In May 2021, Rhodes faculty and students returned to WTRC to celebrate the graduation of the first cohort of students to earn Certificates in Liberal Arts.

The first Rhodes undergraduate to be involved in the program was Madison Zickgraf (’21), who facilitated classes and trained student volunteers from 2019 to 2021. In 2020, Prof. Stephen Haynes began teaching a course called “Mass Incarceration: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives” in which enrolled students serve as tutors and small group leaders for the Liberal Arts in Prison Program at WTRC. The program works closely with the Tennessee Department of Correction, the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, the Southern Collective for Higher Education in Prison, JPay, and the Bard Prison Initiative.

Over twenty Rhodes faculty from the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Greek & Roman Studies, English, History, Modern Languages and Literatures, Philosophy, Political Science, and Religious Studies, have taught in the Liberal Arts in Prison Program since 2016. The program is supported by a number of offices at Rhodes, including Academic Affairs, the Registrar, Grants and Foundations, and Information Services.