San Quentin State Prison

Our Story

The mission of Mount Tamalpais College is to provide an intellectually rigorous, inclusive Associate of Arts degree program and College Preparatory Program, free of charge, to people at San Quentin State Prison; to expand access to quality higher education for incarcerated people; and to foster the values of equity, civic engagement, independence of thought, and freedom of expression.

Mount Tamalpais College is guided by the following values:

  • Opportunity and Access. We believe all people should have access to affordable higher education, and the opportunity to develop their human potential. Excellent academic preparation is vital to accessing the forms of social, political, economic, and cultural capital from which many have historically been excluded.
  • Excellence. We believe every person has the right to the highest quality academic opportunities, including highly skilled, experienced faculty and staff, intensive individualized support, and quality educational materials.
  • Independent, Critical Thinking, and Respectful Dialog. Our central purpose as a higher education institution is to cultivate the capacity for independent, critical thought, curiosity, and listening. We value freedom of expression and civil discourse. The ability to communicate across intellectual, cultural, and ideological difference is vital for fostering healthy civil society.
  • Human Dignity. We honor the individuality and unique backgrounds and viewpoints of every person, and believe every human being has intrinsic value. We strive to promote a vibrant and diverse community based on mutual respect and trust.

In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act barred people incarcerated in the U.S. from receiving Pell Grants. This piece of legislation effectively ended prison higher education across the country, as nearly all of the approximately 350 programs shut down for lack of funds. Our work at San Quentin began in the wake of this disaster and, for over 20 years, the Prison University Project was the only on-site degree-granting program in a California prison. For the first two decades of operation, we operated as an extension site of nearby Patten University. We changed our name to Mount Tamalpais College in 2020.

Today, with unprecedented social, political, and philanthropic interest, our leadership has helped to expand access to higher education—not only at San Quentin but within California’s prison system and nationwide. In January 2022, after an intensive application and review process, Mount Tamalpais College was granted Initial Accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), making us the first independent liberal arts institution dedicated specifically to serving incarcerated students.

Our commitment to providing high-quality liberal arts education at San Quentin began in 1996.
Since 1996, nearly four thousand students have taken at least one course with us at San Quentin.
We provide 60 intellectually rigorous, liberal arts courses each year to students pursuing their AA degree.

2015 National Humanities Medal

In recognition of our impact and our leadership in supporting educational opportunities for incarcerated people, our organization was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

Our Name

In 2020, the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College. Discover the full story of our new name and what it means to us.

A 25-Year Commitment to Education

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act is passed. As a result, the number of prison higher ed programs nationally drops from over 300 to fewer than ten.

Oakland’s Patten University helps launch the College Program—together with an education administrator at San Quentin, a volunteer coordinator from University of California, Davis, and no budget. For 20 years, it remains the only on-site degree-granting program in a California prison.

The first student from the College Program is awarded the Associate of Arts degree.

After serving four years as a volunteer, Jody Lewen takes over as Director of the College Program.

The Prison University Project is founded as a fiscally-sponsored project of the Tides Center.

The Prison University Project receives a major grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation and is incorporated as an independent 501(c)3.

Prison University Project staff begin to explore other college partners, as well as the feasibility of pursuing independence, after Patten University is acquired by UniversityNow.

President Obama awards the Prison University Project the National Humanities Medal.

The Prison University Project continues to explore the pros and cons of independence vs. establishing a new partnership; discussions with two potential college partners stall due to financial instability and leadership transitions at the institutions.

The Prison University Project discusses the prospect of seeking accreditation with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) for the first time.

Patten/UniversityNow announces that they have sold their online platform to JFK University (part of the National University system) and will be closing Patten in 2019.

The process of applying for accreditation from ACCJC begins in earnest. Mary Ellen Petrisko, former president of the WASC Senior College Commission, is hired as a key advisor.

In February, the Prison University Project is awarded Eligibility status by ACCJC, signaling that the organization may move forward with its formal application for accreditation.

From March to July, the staff and board conduct an institutional self-evaluation process focused on the degree to which the Prison University Project meets the Standards of Accreditation.

The 229-page Institutional Self-Evaluation Report is submitted to ACCJC in August.

In October, the Prison University Project hosts a four-day site visit with a 10-member peer review team to determine the organization’s readiness for accreditation.

The Prison University Project is awarded Candidate status with ACCJC on January 27.

In September 2020, the Prison University Project completes its name change and officially becomes Mount Tamalpais College.

Mount Tamalpais College was granted Initial Accreditation by the ACCJC in 2022. In June, 20 students graduated with MTC diplomas for the first time.