Fifteen men settle into their seats in the classroom and open notebooks. “Hand forward your papers,” the instructor says. It’s the second essay of the semester, and for some of these students, among the first college papers they’ve written.
“Was the workshop on writing this paper helpful?” asks Tom Hendrickson, the history graduate student instructor.
“Yes. Tremendously,” answers one student. All the others agree, though one adds, “We’ll see what our grades look like. Then we’ll know how helpful it was.” Laughter ripples across the windowless classroom, which is warm from late-spring weather.
A typical classroom moment, but this is anything but a typical group of students. Each of these men in this ancient history class is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. Their classroom, while lacking a view to the dusty yard outside, does have one glass wall that faces out to security guards seated in the hall.
At San Quentin, only the inmates can wear blue—the prisoner uniform consists of jeans and long, light blue shirts with the word “CDC PRISONER” in large letters across the back. Visitors, including instructors who come at least once every week, adhere to a strict dress code so they won’t be mixed up with prisoners or guards. Visitors are escorted by prison staff to the classroom portables across the yard, where inmates exercise and play basketball, with Marin’s brown hills rising outside the barbed wire fence.
Inside the class, past the various security checkpoints, it’s possible to forget that this is a medium-security prison. These men are here to learn, to discuss what they are reading, to engage one another in what may be the prison’s only racially integrated environment and to study history.
“We learn from our mistakes and we learn from our successes,” says Dan, a prisoner who is one of Hendrickson’s students, to explain why he’s in the class. “We all hear about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but how did it rise and how did it fall?”
San Quentin, California’s oldest prison, with its fortress-like facades and 1890s-era wrought-iron front gate, offers the state’s only on-site prison college degree programs (another, offered by San Diego City College, has been discontinued due to lack of funds). About 250 prisoners each semester enroll in college preparatory or associate of arts courses. The project at San Quentin is an extension site of Oakland’s Patten University. Since there is no tuition or state or federal funding for prison higher education, the program is supported by donations to the Prison University Project. Twelve courses are offered each semester, in the humanities, social sciences, math and science. All instructors are volunteers, and many, like Hendrickson, are from U.C. Berkeley. So far 74 men have completed their associate of arts degrees through this program at San Quentin.
Jody Lewen has directed the college program at the prison since 2000. Lewen, who received her doctorate in rhetoric from Berkeley, visits the prison frequently. Her commitment to the program is evident as she escorts a visitor across the prison yard, calling out greetings to men who gather in the yard before class in the fading evening light. Under her leadership the program has flourished. There are more volunteer instructors than the program can accommodate, but space is at a premium.
“Education isn’t the goal of the prison, clearly,” says Lewen, gesturing toward the ceiling of a barn-like structure that houses several math courses. While the building could easily accommodate two levels of classrooms, students and instructors crowd into the space, working in storage “cages” that have doors made of bars. “We have to use every nook and cranny.”
An inmate can take enough courses at San Quentin to earn an associate of arts degree—two years shy of a B.A. There are very few computers available, so most papers are turned in handwritten. Dan, the inmate in the ancient history class, earned his G.E.D. in county jail. In his cell at San Quentin he turns a bucket upside down to create a writing surface when the prison library is closed. The library, Dan says, has a limited selection of books, including a partial set of encyclopedias.
“I’m a high-school dropout,” he says. “I wasted 15 years and now I’m trying to make myself a success.”
Volunteering in a prison classroom was never what Victoria Kahn imagined doing when she became a professor of English and Comparative Literature. But the rewards have been high.
“The first semester I taught, they thanked me for showing up,” she says. “San Quentin students appreciate the power of the classroom. It’s very empowering for them because they are treated respectfully, like the human beings they are. You have 150 percent of their attention.”
Kahn’s first experience at San Quentin was co-teaching an English class. Keeping with the course’s theme of Nature and Human Nature, the class read Kafka’s novella, Metamorphosis, the story of a traveling salesman who wakes up one day to find he has turned into a giant cockroach.
She recalls one student who was very engaged in class discussions at the beginning of the semester, but then quite suddenly stopped coming. Then to Kahn’s surprise, he returned to class the day the paper was due. He seemed quite agitated, she says, and stood up to explain that he had had a hard time reading the book because Kafka was a Jew.
Kahn’s story illustrates how issues like race and religion are unavoidable and unique in prison culture. California is one of the last states to continue housing new prison arrivals in racially segregated cells, as a way to curb gang violence. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state’s prisons to begin integrating prisoners this past July, it’s a slow process that has yet to have substantial impact at San Quentin. Technically, the non-housing areas of state prisons like San Quentin are already integrated, including the dining hall and yard. But in practice inmates self-segregate in those common areas, like grouping with others of their own race out on the yard.
Being in one of the prison’s classrooms may be the only time prisoners are in a racially mixed setting—not just sitting together, but actually interacting. While the classes are relaxed, instructors say they are always aware of the fact that they’re in a unique and potentially charged environment. Some say that while they ask Berkeley students to pair up in class to discuss material, they never do so at San Quentin. Pairing up, they say, might lead to unfriendly combinations and trouble.
So when Kahn’s student openly copped to his anti-Semitism in class, it was surprising and a little unnerving. But then he surprised her again.
“He wrote that even though Kafka was a Jew, he had a lot to teach about alienation,” Kahn recalls. “Later in class he actually said, ‘I really have come to appreciate what literature can do to change your mind.’”
Jody Lewen hears the question all the time: Why would somebody in prison for a long time, or even forever, need an education?
“I can’t imagine even believing that they wouldn’t need education,” she says. Her zeal softens when she considers the way most people see prisoners—as a faceless mass of bad people who are behind bars for good reason. She is also quick to note that, culturally, we tend to see education in just as limited a way.
“We are programmed to think about education as job training in the most sterile sense,” she says. And to be sure, she sees the practical value of education for these prisoners. Someday, she hopes, prisoners will be able to earn a B.A. and even study beyond the undergraduate level.
But what gets Lewen excited about her work is when she hears prisoners like Ricky talk about how the courses he’s taken through University Project have changed his life.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and my culture, other cultures, ethics, imagination,” he says. “It seems like I should have been aware of these things at an earlier age. But I ended up at San Quentin and now I’m ready to reclaim my life.”
Ricky has taken classes in critical thinking and math, which make up the largest percentage of offerings in the Prison University Project, but courses in English and history are also well subscribed. In fact, teaching at San Quentin inspires some humanities professors to remember why they teach.
“I feel that teaching at San Quentin is an intensified version of what I do at Berkeley,” says Kathleen McCarthy, a professor of Classics and Comparative Literature. “A lot of these guys never expected to be in a college classroom, so to be treated as a student allows them to bring pure intensity to learning.”
McCarthy co-taught the Ancient History course with Tom Hendrickson in the spring. While many of her students at San Quentin may not have the same level of academic preparation as Berkeley students, McCarthy says that class discussions interpreting the similarities between our world and ancient civilization take place in much clearer relief in a prison classroom.
“It’s no surprise to me that teaching is the volunteer activity of choice for so many of our faculty and graduate students,” says Janet Broughton, a professor of philosophy and Berkeley’s current dean of arts and humanities. “They quite simply love their areas of study, whether literature, philosophy or history, and so for them, sharing this love of learning is deeply satisfying.”
To be sure, there are some headaches involved in teaching at San Quentin—communication with students outside of class is impossible. There can be no office hours or late-night e-mail conversations. Instructors also have to send all their course materials to Prison University Project staff well ahead of time to be copied and distributed, so they can’t be spontaneous with their lecture materials. Students also may have never taken a history course before and may have had little experience writing college papers.
But the level of student engagement is high. San Quentin students are more vocal in class than typical college students, instructors say. Inmates don’t hesitate to make their observations public. Students in McCarthy’s class pointed out similarities between Roman society and our own, noting, for example, that votes in Rome were cast in order of a person’s wealth, McCarthy says, so that by the time a poor person voted, an election may have already been decided.
“That’s good, that they are looking for parallels,” she says. “But sometimes I have to push them to think about history is a more nuanced way. What does it mean, I ask them, that unlike the Roman state the U.S. actually codifies equality in its constitution? That we strive for equality even if it seems that we don’t always achieve it?”
That notion might hit a nerve for Ricky, who says he can’t undo the mistakes he made that landed him in prison, but he wants a second chance.
“People make mistakes, but what are we going to do after those mistakes?” he says. “Are we going to keep people ignorant? My dream is to be an entrepreneur. I’ve spent a lot of time in prison studying the stock market and economics and capitalism, because if you don’t have any money, what are you going to do?”
Is it Safe?, an exhibit of essays and photographs from the Prison University Project, will be on display through Oct. 22 at Alcatraz Island. For more information see www.prisonuniversityproject.org.
Kate Rix is an Oakland-based writer. She is a former editor of The Monthly.
Attribution: This article originally appeared in The Monthly in October of 2008. Read Story
Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.