Written by: Sadie Leslie
Thirty minutes north of San Francisco, draped along the edge of the Bay, sits the renowned, and surprisingly regal, San Quentin State Prison. The oldest prison in California, San Quentin is most widely known for its headlining inmates and as the home to the state’s only death row.
Just as you can imagine, the entrance to the prison is a remarkably large iron gate that, when opened, makes a harrowing, high-pitched moan of metal on metal. Inside these gates, sits a rose garden and a church, surrounded by tall cement walls with rows of tiny windows. A path leads down and around these walls to the general population recreation area. A sea of men, all dressed in the same denim blue, go about their time outside. Inmates play baseball, run laps around the field or lift weights.
In the far end of the yard sits a group of men—students—patient, yet, excitedly awaiting their favorite part of the day—class. An old, tattered building, sectioned off into a group of small classrooms houses the largest volunteer program at San Quentin, a place where maximum-security inmates become college students, broadening their minds, discovering the world and education like never before.
These students are part of an award-winning program leading the charge for prison higher education in the US, the Prison University Project (PUP). What was once a tiny program with just two classes and no funding, is now offering college preparatory classes, an Associate of Arts Degree in General Education through Patten University, and the opportunity to transfer to a UC or CSU upon release. Through education, PUP is combating recidivism and completely changing lives.
Prison University Project student, Anouthinh Pangthong, writes about his experience before and after becoming a student at San Quentin, in a piece entitled “Why Do I Want a College Degree?” He writes that, upon on committing his crime at the age of 15, he received a 25-year sentence. This meant that he would receive very little education in the coming years, something that is quite common among the incarcerated population in America; most do not have a high school diploma. Panthong goes on to say:
“Like the cave dwellers in Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ I was limited in how I perceived the world. I viewed life through very narrow lenses… Attending college has afforded me the opportunity to escape the cave of darkness and obscurity and enter a world of new experiences. As a student, I have learned so much from my instructors and other students through classroom lectures, discussions and brainstorming. Most important of all, what I have learned concerns my own development. Education has given me the confidence to actualize my potential.”
Even while California leads the US in educating the incarcerated, the point remains, that the nation is far from fulfilling the potential of these types of programs. Elizabeth Hinton, in her NY Times piece on the subject, says it best, “While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race… Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation in America.” A 2013 study by The RAND Corporation confirms that education programs in prisons reduce recidivism by a whopping 43 percent. It also increases opportunity for finding work post prison sentence and proves to be more cost-effective than housing recidivating inmates.
San Quentin State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, Chino Institute for Women, Folsom Women’s Facility at Folsom State Prison, and Lancaster State Prison, are some of the leading college programs in California. While they, along with the rest of the nation, face many challenges in this world of educating the incarcerated, it certainly seems important enough to pursue.
While there are exciting things brewing in the senate regarding Pell Grants for students in prison, the Prison University Project at San Quentin is doing all they can to help create new prison education programs in the US. By holding individualized trainings for schools and the community, providing a wealth of knowledge, resources and tools for other future program creators, as well as hosting on-site visits to San Quentin, they are dedicated to helping other colleges create these incredibly important programs. In early May, the Prison University Project called for proposals on “Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reform”. They will host a panel at San Quentin for all ideas to be heard and considered, a massive brainstorm. It is with these kinds of efforts that it is no wonder PUP leads to way in prison education reform.
Take a peek into the second annual TED-Q through a Q&A with the founder, Billy Quirke as he explores what matters the most to us in our everyday lives.