Education is changing lives at California’s San Quentin prison
San Quentin, one of the country’s most notorious prisons and the subject of movies, songs and TV shows, is fast becoming known for something else: rehabilitation.
The prison north of San Francisco is home to the state’s Death Row for men, but also boasts the Prison University Project, along with yoga classes, a coding program, podcast named Ear Hustle, and the San Quentin News, among the country’s best-known newspapers produced by incarcerated men.
“Years ago, San Quentin was notorious,” Rahsaan Thomas, a reporter for the newspaper, told me. “Progressive wardens and incarcerated men have helped shift this culture of violence to one of community and opportunity.”
Out of 20 correctional department staff killed in California state prisons between 1952–2012, half were killed at San Quentin, the last in 1985, according to the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation.
Thomas said other incarcerated men, reading about the programs here, often request transfers.
“The offerings at other California prisons are dismal compared to San Quentin,” he said. Simply listing the programs, as innovative as they are, can’t really convey their impact.
Lumina Foundation recently announced it will support efforts to improve access to quality education for people who are incarcerated or have recently been released from prison. One of our initial investments is the Prison University Project, and I got to meet their director, Jody Lewen. My time at San Quentin State Prison convinced me that high-quality prison education can’t solely be aimed at reducing recidivism.
Visiting San Quentin is an eye-opening experience. We entered the grounds through a courtyard surrounded by vibrant rose bushes. The sweet essence of the roses hit me. As I inhaled the very nectar of spring itself it was not lost on me how contradictory that scent was to the very environment we were in.
Past the courtyard and down a service road was the yard. There was a sea of men in all blue cotton outfits — the shirts stamped in bold yellow lettering on the back reading “CDCR Prisoner.”
The men were enjoying the beautiful weather almost as if it was recess time in a school yard. There was a punching bag, picnic tables, a full-length basketball court, pull-up bars, and a tennis court. Next to the court was what appeared to be a baseball field. The base paths were filled with weeds. The pitcher’s mound and home plate area were hard to make out.
As we walked toward a trailer where the staff of the San Quentin News is housed, I looked to my right and noticed a man sitting with his legs crossed in the home plate area surrounded by pigeons and geese.
His arms were extended, and pigeons were perched on them with one sitting directly next to his face on his right shoulder. As he opened his right hand to entice the birds he leaned in to the pigeon on his shoulder and lovingly gave it a kiss. I realized he was fulfilling the natural human tendency to nurture. He felt a deep connection to these birds that those on the outside would certainly consider a nuisance. Despite his captivity, he was connecting with creatures within the prison walls to provide healing and purpose in a space that is filled with consistent deprivation.
‘Nothin’ but time’
The respect the incarcerated men have for Lewen is clear. Their faces light up when they see her. As we made our way through the yard, a young black man approached. “Yo, Jody,” he said. “I got a question for you.”
As he started a conversation about his school work, she lovingly asked: “Can we talk about this later, when I’m not as distracted?”
“Yeah, no doubt,” he said, adding with a sly grin: “I got nothin’ but time.” The chilling reality of his words lingered as he walked away.
After visiting a prison cell in the North Block, Jody took us into one of the Prison University Project classrooms to talk with alumni and current students. The men trickled in one by one, all politely greeting us. Most had just gotten off work. All were clean shaven with sharp haircuts. Some had their blue shirts buttoned all the way to the top, ironed, and tucked into their pants as if to maintain some sense of individualism and professionalism in prison garb.
The first young man who walked in told us about a mentoring program he was trying to start for youth offenders to keep them on track. He was motivated by his own experiences fighting in prison that resulted in a 9-inch scar on his abdomen. One of the men shared how receiving his associate degree inspired both his mother and sister to get their bachelor’s degree.
One Latino male shared his stories of being bullied in school for over a decade.
“The teachers saw me hurt and bleeding and they did nothing,” he said. While the bullying subsided briefly in college, it did not completely stop. He made some bad choices as a result of the trauma he had from being bullied, which eventually led to his incarceration. “And now I have to face the consequences of my actions, but they [the education system] don’t.”
Make it Bigger
The stories we heard illustrated how the institutions that marginalized individuals encounter are designed to limit their success. But ironically, these men have the opposite educational experience in San Quentin. In talking about their experience, all the men said it was the first time in their life that they had teachers who cared, and the first time they were engaged and excited about learning, thus confirming the proven link between mass incarceration and mass undereducation.
Many of the Prison University Project graduates continue to take classes just to deepen their learning. What men gain goes beyond academic learning — they gain empathy, healing, and a purpose
“The education received through the Prison University Project helped incarcerated men like Emile DeWeaver, a 2017 graduate, become a professional writer,” Rashaan Thomas told me. “Several literacy magazines have published Emile’s work and he has an on-line column.”
I asked the men for recommendations and they suggested offering more degrees and expanding the program: “Make it bigger!” they said.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Educational programs like the Prison University Project are hard to come by because of scarce funding. In many cases, academic credits earned in one prison aren’t transferable even to another correctional facility, much less to a college or university. And prison education too often fails to set up students for employability.
All of that needs to change. High-quality correctional education shouldn’t be a priority simply because it reduces recidivism. Access should be a priority because it offers true liberation. In an environment where so many aspects of humanity are stripped away, a person’s knowledge is one of the few things no one can take. And, by having this knowledge upon release, they’ll be better equipped to overcome the stigma of criminality. High-quality education for incarcerated people fundamentally transforms the culture of the prison, the lives of the students, and the lives of their family members. It also gives our country an opportunity to rectify the effects of racial injustice.
Through a grant with the Prison University Project, Lumina will release quality and practice standards that ensure the quality of education in the prison setting, in an effort to ensure that incarcerated people have the opportunity for a high-quality educational experience. As criminal justice reform continues to pique the interest of American voters, more emphasis should be given to the transformative nature of prison-based education — not just for those that are incarcerated, but for the corrections system itself. It is critical that there is support for high-quality models that reimagine prisons as college campuses that can offer the incarcerated a fresh start in life. If we truly believe education is a civil right, we must provide more and better correctional education programs.