Saturday, June 20, 2009


I visited San Quentin prison yesterday to deliver a lecture to a classroom full of prisoners who are mostly students in the remarkable prison university project that has provided college level course work through volunteers since most official links between prisons and universities were severed by the noxious Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (which eliminated eligibility for prisoners to obtain Pell grants). As in my previous visits, the men subjected my arguments to a complete and skeptical review of the sort that I only rarely get from my Berkeley students (who after all have many more professors competing for their attention, not to mention the internet delivered in high speed wireless to their laptop). I walked away with many more ideas than I came in with.

One of them was this. Let us take advantage of California's massive budget crisis to establish links between prisons and universities all over this state. Universities are brimming with students looking for opportunities to combine public service and learning. Prisons are brimming with adults with the time and attention to devote to college level course work. Student staffed clinics could provide all kinds of services to prisoners preparing for their release back into the community. As fellow students in faculty taught college classes, prisoners could teach students about the realities of growing up in some of California's most disadvantaged neighborhoods and surviving in the State's toughest prisons.

Accommodating this kind of exchange will pose serious challenges to correctional officers and managers, but if college based programming proved attractive to a substantial part of the prisoner population, the gains in improved prison order and reentry success might be rich indeed. San Quentin has an ethos I have not felt at other California prisons, and which I believe comes from the relatively open links that bring volunteers, journalists, teachers and other community members behind the walls.

It will also stretch university resources mostly in the staff and faculty time while both are already taking pay cuts through "furloughs", while opening up vast pools of knowledge currently inaccessible to our students and faculties.

1 comment:

M said...

I was a volunteer tutor at San Quentin in Spring '09 through UC Berkeley's decal program, and I agree that the California prison system would benefit from more similarly structured volunteer programs. As a tutor I learned very little from the inmates because we were encouraged to always focus on academics and stray away from personal conversation. However, I was able to see first hand that "criminals" are not quite as bad as many stereotypes make them out to be, so, I took away a lot from the experience as I intend to apply to law school next year and am considering a career as a public criminal defense attorney. I like the suggestion that inmates be able to teach university students more about their struggles; I would have really liked to learn more about some of the inmates I had the opportunity to tutor, but I'm not sure the prison administrators will go for the idea.