Men sit flipping through books, watching a professor lecture from a whiteboard at the front of the room. Others sit in circles, debating issues and scribbling out homework. It could be any other college classroom — except the students are inmates at San Quentin State Prison and their teacher is a volunteer.
Such is a typical day at California’s oldest state prison, which is inundated with progressive programs for inmates. San Quentin is perched just off the Richmond Bridge in Marin County — and the Bay Area that surrounds it has embraced it as a place with potential for rehabilitation and healing. I myself am one of many UC Berkeley volunteers who regularly makes the trip 15 miles northwest to the prison, where I work with a group of men who produce a monthly newspaper.
The educational programs that San Quentin offers allow inmates a brief reprieve from the monotony and destitution of prison life. But not all prisons are like San Quentin, and most men in California’s overflowing prison system are not spending their days studying topics such as creative writing, computer science and entrepreneurship.
One reason for this is simple: San Quentin is not hidden in the dusty corners of California or dropped in the middle of vast swaths of deserted crops. The majority of California prisons are geographically isolated and see barely anyone chomping at the bit to come in and lend a hand. The state’s resources are spent building more prisons rather than increasing resources for the many, many prisons we already have.
The state has built more than 20 prisons since 1980, and as the system continues to grow, individual inmates stand even less of a chance at rehabilitation. While spending on prison has skyrocketed in recent years, investment in education in these prisons has plummeted. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ended higher education programs for prisoners, restricting incarcerated Americans from receiving Pell Grants.
At the time, there were around 350 college programs for prisoners around the country. In direct response to the new law, that number has dwindled to 12.
Just 6 percent of incarcerated Americans in 43 states were enrolled in higher education programs in the 2009-10 academic year, according to a recent study. These numbers remain dismally low.
Only 20 percent of incarcerated Californians demonstrate basic literacy, and nearly 70 percent of prisoners in the United States don’t even have high school diplomas, according to the San Jose Mercury News. This makes general education most important for the prison population, and to its credit, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offers GED programs at all of its locations. But educational services for inmates can and should go beyond the bare minimum.
By studying a diverse curriculum that pushes beyond literacy, inmates taking college courses engage with societal issues and discuss them in a productive space. Without this opportunity, even inmates with a basic education remain stuck within the confines of their circumstances.
“When the colleges left, the hope did, too,” wrote John J. Lennon, an inmate from Attica Correctional Facility in New York, in an op-ed for the New York Times.
The argument against offering college education to prisoners goes something like this: I don’t get a free education, so why on earth should a criminal? But this argument is shortsighted. This issue isn’t just about recognizing a lack of educational opportunity that may have led prisoners to crime — it’s also about preventing recidivism. A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education found that inmates who are enrolled in education programs are far less likely to return to prison than inmates who were not allowed schooling.
I witness the benefits of education for inmates firsthand. Many of the men I work with at San Quentin were only able to pursue an education once they arrived at prison. They managed this by utilizing the services of the Prison University Project, a nonprofit that offers a free college education to San Quentin inmates. But PUP operates out of its own goodwill and a mix of private funding and volunteer efforts, not public funds. Volunteers from UC Berkeley and other institutions donate their time to ensure that these prisoners have access to higher education.
But a volunteer-based effort is simply not enough to make prison education a state priority. While PUP provides incredible services and has seen success — its graduates are far less likely to return to prison than other inmates — its reach is limited to San Quentin.
As students and faculty from universities around the country enter prisons to share the benefits of higher education with incarcerated men and women, they can also be educated by the inmates they interact with. Incarcerated Americans have much to say about their condition and its many unjust facets, but often aren’t granted the space to advocate for themselves. Volunteers have the opportunity to bring the concerns of inmates outside the confines of prison walls. This dialogue can inspire true social change.
In this mutual education, prisoners and invested volunteers can break down prison stigma and work towards a more progressive criminal justice system. Collaborations between universities and prisons illustrate this power.