Beyond Bars: Doctoral Student Leads Creative Writing Workshops at Harris County Jail

Kaj Tanaka

Kaj Tanaka, a doctoral student in the Creative Writing Program, is making a difference as a teacher in the Harris County Jail Creative Writing Workshop. After first leading a workshop in 2014 at a county jail in Illinois, Tanaka has led three workshops in Harris County since the fall of 2017. He says he is motivated by a belief that correctional facilities shouldn’t dehumanize their occupants.

Tanaka leads workshop on a volunteer basis and receives support from Inprint, a Houston-based literary and arts nonprofit. Some of his students are as young as 18, while others an in their eighties. Some of Tanaka’s workshops have been tailored specifically to military veterans or recovering drug users. He believes his students’ diversity in age, race, and personal circumstances creates a uniquely stimulating teaching environment.

“I really wish I had a classroom,” said Tanaka, who teaches out of his students’ living quarters. “My students sit at a couple of steel picnic table-type things or on their bunk beds, and there are always distractions: correctional officers coming in and out, food, meds. It’s always loud. It’s not an environment that’s conductive to sustained concentration. I don’t even have a table to set my teaching materials down on—I just hold everything in my hand or under my arm. You don’t really appreciate the value of a classroom as a shared space where everyone can become his or her best self until you lose it.”