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Professor Brings Prison Journalism Project, New Perspective to Penn State

by on March 05, 2020 5:00 AM

I will never forget how taken aback I was at first by Shaheen Pasha’s loud, unavoidable charisma on my first day of class with her more than two months ago. She’s one of those people who talks with her hands, can’t stand still, and won’t go anywhere without hoop earrings. 

In a strange way, that first impression caused me to look up to her for being so unapologetically herself — for being a person, not a teacher. But Pasha, an assistant teaching professor of journalism, did not just come to teach. She came to create something that Penn State has never seen before. 

With the help of the Restorative Justice Initiative and the Bellisario College of Communications, Pasha is spearheading the Prison Journalism Project. Put simply, the project’s goal is to educate incarcerated people and Penn State students alike about journalism and each other. 

Like Pasha, the project has many layers to it. She is working on implementing an “inside-out class” in which Penn State students will travel to a correctional facility in the area to write alongside incarcerated people. 

“For me, when I’m bringing students there, I don’t want a hierarchy,” she said. “Like, every student from [Penn State] who goes in there is automatically on equal footing to me as the students inside the facility…They’re teaching each other based on their experiences and sharing their knowledge, but it’s not like the Penn State students are gonna be necessarily doing it on a higher level.”

It is not clear when the inside-out class will be available for enrollment, but Pasha’s vision is that students will receive a prompt at the beginning of class, write the story together, and then edit each other’s stories in groups based off of individual talents. 

Pasha is currently teaching a creative non-fiction class at the Centre County Correctional Facility (CCCF) as a volunteer, in which she writes the prompt of the day alongside her students. This is the first time CCCF has offered a class of this sort to men. 

The first prompt she gave her CCCF students was to write about their first memory.

“They don’t think about their memories from childhood,” she said. “And when you go back to that, they were kids once. They had friends, they were loved or not loved, right?”

One of Pasha’s students wrote about how one day in kindergarten, he was counting beans when he became enamored with a girl’s dress. He went up to her, and pulled the skirt of her dress up. At age 4 or 5, he didn’t understand that what he had done was wrong. 

“This nice little day that he had…became this very punitive, shaming moment,” Pasha said. “I thought it was just very telling of his experience in life. Like where things are happening and then he makes a mistake, and it immediately changes the dynamic.”

It is stories with these types of revealing parallels that could help students learn from their fellow incarcerated students. 

The Prison Journalism Project website launched recently. The website provides a way for interested people or parties to contact Pasha and her colleagues, or to learn more about the project. 

Pasha also wants to add a portal for incarcerated people to publish their work through on the website “so when they’re writing stuff, it’s actually going somewhere.” 

Additionally, a textbook is being written by Pasha and her colleagues, Yukari Kane (co-founder and co-executive director), Kate McQueen, and Razvan “Raz” Sibii (academic advisors). 

The four are beginning with writing a primer, which is essentially a cheat sheet for how to conduct the class and what lessons to include. The “beta test” primer will be distributed to the San Quentin News, the newspaper of California’s San Quentin Prison.

San Quentin News, the only newspaper written and operated by incarcerated people in the country, is advised by Kane. The primer will be used by Kane in her classes, and help guide those who want to submit. 

Teaching two Penn State classes and working on the Prison Journalism Project is no small undertaking. However, Pasha successfully implemented an inside-outside course at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she taught before coming to Penn State. 

Before becoming a professor at all, Pasha worked in journalism for two decades. Her fascination with crime came from an unlikely place. After all she made a career covering legal and financial issues at home and overseas for Dow Jones Newswires, CNNMoney, and Reuters just to name a few. 

Pasha also was awarded the Knight Nieman Visiting Fellowship at Harvard, which offers opportunities to work on special projects for the advancement of journalism. For Pasha, that was the Prison Journalism Project. 

When I asked her if she was passionate about business writing, her answer was an emphatic “No!” However, she kept at it because, at the time, she needed the money.

But inspiration and passion often come from unlikely places. Had Pasha not worked in that field, she may have never become as fascinated with corporate greed and the disparity between the advantaged and the disadvantaged as she is now. 

“I made myself like it because I looked at what I liked about it, and what I liked about it is ‘What is insurance? It’s about losing everything you own… it’s about having, as a person, everything gone and trying to rebuild from that,” Pasha said.

Now, she is working with those who have lost everything.

Pasha is focused on sharing her love of journalism with all of her students, and making them feel included. 

“I feel like I know what it’s like to not feel like you belong, so I try to go out of my way to let my students know that, wherever I am, they belong,” Pasha said. 



Grace Carlisle is a Penn State student and a writer for Onward State.
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