Last week, I had the auspicious privilege of visiting San Quentin State Prison, the oldest prison in California and the largest Death Row prison in the country, with more than seven hundred condemned prisoners. While I have visited many prisons in different contexts over the course of my rabbinic career, I had never been afforded the opportunity to be invited to engage with a wonderful program called the Prison University Project, who invited me to spend a morning learning and interacting with prisoners at San Quentin. According to the Prison University Project website, the project is dedicated “To provide excellent higher education to people at San Quentin State Prison; to support increased access to higher education for incarcerated people; and to stimulate public awareness about higher education access and criminal justice.”
While at San Quentin, I had the opportunity to speak with various inmates. I asked them what social injustices and human challenges bother them most that they want to address. Some of their thoughtful answers included: suffering of children, socio-economic divides, transitioning from retributive justice to restorative justice, family planning support, religious conflicts, helping others unlock their inner potentials, poverty, treating Alzheimer’s, teaching kids emotional intelligence. They were spirited and thoughtful about these causes; they opened my heart.
These students, in prison garb, were deeply intrigued, committed, and insightful. In this neuroscience course, every one of them grappled with the limits of free will, the implications of new findings on how the brain works, and what it all means about human development. I was so moved and impressed by their thoughtful answers. In the course of my brief time with these men, I wondered how they learned as much as they had without having prior advanced degrees and with such little time at the prison for their studies. I was told that they don’t receive adequate time or space to do their homework, so they sit upon their toilets in their cells to do their work. In contrast, the Prison University Project treated the inmates with respect and dignity. They truly create a space of hope in their classrooms, moments of light amidst overwhelming darkness.