California inmates study at 1st college based behind bars


Behind a fortress wall and barbed wire and a few meters from Californiaon death row, students from one of the country’s most unique neighborhoods colleges discuss the September 11 attacks and issues of morality, identity and nationalism.

Dressed in matching blue uniforms, the students only break off their discussion when a guard enters the classroom, calling each man’s last name and waiting for them to respond with the last two digits of their inmate number.

They are students at Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State Prison, the nation’s first accredited junior college based behind bars. Inmates can take courses in literature, astronomy, U.S. government, precalculus, and more to earn an associate of arts degree.

Named after a mountain near the jail, the college was accredited in January after a 19-member Western Association of Schools and Colleges commission determined that the San Quentin-based extension program for more than two decades offered a high quality education.

“This is a huge step forward in prison education,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, the umbrella organization for all American institutions of higher learning.

Mitchell said Mount Tamalpais College is “an extraordinary model” that will give it unprecedented autonomy in prison programs attached to outside schools.

The new designation will compel the school to maintain the high standards set by the association of colleges and hopefully attract the attention of donors to help the college grow, President Jody Lewen said. If it can accommodate 300 students per semester, 200 others are on the waiting list.

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The college is one of dozens of educational, job training and self-help programs available to the 3,100 inmates in the medium-security portion of San Quentin, making it a top destination for inmates from all over the world. state who are pushing to be transferred there.

‘I wish I had learned that way when I came; instead, I’ve been in special education my whole life,’ said Derry Brown, 49, whose ‘Cosmopolitan Fictions’ English 101 class was talking about. from “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, a novel by Mohsin Hamid.

Brown, who is serving a 20-year sentence for burglary and assault, earned his GED in prison and is proud to be a student now. He said he could pursue a career in music in his hometown of Los Angeles once he is released next year.

“There’s joy in learning – that’s why I want to keep going,” he said. “Even when I go out, I go back to college.”

The college’s $5 million annual budget is funded entirely by private donations, with paid staff and volunteer faculty, many of whom are graduate students from top universities, including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

The previous program started in 1996 and was later known as the Prison University Project and it also offered associate degrees, but Lewen, who started as a volunteer instructor in 1999, said she started the process to have a standalone college three years ago when the university they partnered with closed.

“A lot of times in higher education, people look at educational programs in prisons and say, ‘Well, it’s a program or a project. It’s not a school.’ Our hope is that by being an independent, accredited liberal arts college that operates in a prison, we make it harder for people to forget those inside and help them imagine our students differently.” , said Lewen.

Any inmate from the general San Quentin population with a high school diploma or GED certificate is eligible. The prison’s 539 death row inmates are excluded.

Guards check the IDs of students who come to classes held in trailers set up on one edge of the prison’s exercise yard, where students stop to discuss their homework – corrections officers watching from four towers above.

Hearing those conversations in court made a big impression on Richard “Bonaru” Richardson after he was transferred to San Quentin in 2007 to finish serving a 47-year-to-life sentence for robbery with home invasion. Former Governor Jerry Brown commuted Richardson’s sentence and he was released last year after serving 23 years.

“At other establishments we used to talk about gang activity, violence, knives, drugs, the next riot,” he said.

At San Quentin, the conversations often revolved around the courses they were taking, how to write a thesis, or how to defend an argument.

“I was surprised. It was kind of like, ‘Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a prison?'” he added.

He decided to enroll after seeing a group of female volunteers walking through the prison yard.

“I walked into class for all the wrong reasons, but I realized I was learning something and there were people who believed in you more than you believed in yourself. When you see that, you start believing in yourself,” he said. mentioned.

During his 14 years in San Quentin, Richardson, 47, became editor of the inmate-run San Quentin News, a monthly newspaper distributed to California’s 35 prisons that shed light on prison programs and often publishes inspiring stories of men who pursued higher education while incarcerated.

He now works as an advancement associate and helps the college’s communications and fundraising departments.

“Like me, some of them may be the only person in their family to ever graduate from college and that inspires your children to continue their education. For some of them, that’s the greatest achievement of their lives,” Richardson said.

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Doug Arwine, a high school social studies teacher, started volunteering this year and teaches English 101, which emphasizes the development of critical thinking.

He said he enjoys helping his students “share experiences and share their humanity with each other.”

“There are also moments of success when a student realizes that they have written a really elegant paragraph in their essay and have made some interesting points. As with any student, wherever you are, you can see how it helps them build confidence,” Arwine said.

Teaching at San Quentin is also a unique experience. The process of going through security layers, teaching the two-hour class, and then going through security again at the end of the day takes about five hours, Arwine said. He spends many more hours correcting homework and preparing for his lessons twice a week.

Many of his students dropped out of school at an early age or went to unsafe public schools, Arwine said.

“I truly believe in the values ​​that Mount Tamalpais College stands for, in terms of providing free educational opportunities for incarcerated people, because as we know from social science research, the best way to reduce recidivism rates is to provide educational programs while they are incarcerated. That is arguably the best form of rehabilitation,” said Arwine, whose father spent time in prison.

A Rand study 2013 found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs were 43% less likely to re-offend than those who did not and were 13% more likely to obtain employment.

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Jesse Vasquez, 39, said he was serving multiple life sentences for attempted murder, a drive-by shooting and an assault with a deadly weapon at a maximum-security facility when he read the program in the San Quentin News and decided he would be transferred there. one day.

Vasquez had taken college correspondence programs at other prisons, but studying in a classroom at San Quentin helped him see his potential, and he realized he was in a ” rehabilitation center.

The classes challenged him to question what he was learning and helped him develop critical thinking skills, which he called a “pivotal moment”.

Vasquez’s sentence was commuted by the governor in 2018 after serving more than 19 years. He was released in 2019 and now works for Friends of San Quentin News, a nonprofit that supports the newspaper.

He said having the students enrolled in a real community college will give them even more incentive to pursue higher education and hopefully encourage other prisons to have their own colleges.

“All of a sudden more people might be more open to the idea of, ‘Hey, what if we try this revolutionary idea somewhere else?'” he said.

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