Berkeley alumni’s program to educate prisoners receives National Humanities Medal

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The Prison University Project will be awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House on Thursday for its efforts to provide the currently incarcerated with higher education.

Jody Lewen — who received a doctorate in rhetoric from UC Berkeley — started PUP by teaching classes at San Quentin State Prison to provide prisoners with an associate’s degree in liberal arts. In addition to helping prisoners earn degrees, the program aims to create a model for other prison higher education organizations and to humanize the incarcerated in the public eye in America.

Amy Jamgochian, the academic program director for PUP and a former UC Berkeley lecturer, said too often prison education programs prioritize prisoners who will soon be released as more “deserving” of higher education since they will be on the job market.

“Part of our ethos is to not assume in advance that we know what students want to do with their degree, what value they’ll get out of it,” Jamgochian said. “It’s not for me to say what prisoners are good for … (education) is valuable no matter how long they’re there.”

While in-prison education programs are on the rise in California, there are also several education programs for students who were formerly incarcerated, including the campus’s own Underground Scholars Initiative. USI started in 2013 with the purpose of helping the formerly incarcerated get higher education and break down negative stigmas around being a former prisoner.

Clint Terrell, a senior English major and Haas research fellow, credits USI with helping him to stay on track in school after being released from prison. By working with USI, he was able to leave his minimum wage job that offered little upward mobility and expand his worldview, which helped keep him out of prison.

“There is a strong attraction (at UC Berkeley) for students who want a higher education. They set their sights on here, especially because of help with Underground Scholars,” he said.

With help from USI, Terrell learned how to apply to the UC system from community college, as well as what he could do with different degreesopportunities that he previously had little knowledge about.

The problem, according to Jamgochian and Andrew Barlow, a professor of sociology on campus, is that currently and formerly incarcerated people are often defined by their worst deed, when in reality their crimes were a direct result of life trauma. The end goal, Barlow said, is to end mass incarceration by creating a voice for understanding prison experiences, allowing these people to be empowered and to heal.

“We don’t have the ability as a society to understand and support and heal the people when these things happen to them,” Barlow said. “The era of mass incarceration makes them seem like vicious animals.”

The Prison University Project will be awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House on Thursday for its efforts to provide the currently incarcerated with higher education.