San Quentin rehabilitation programs offer inmates education, a voice

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At San Quentin State Prison, more than 2,000 inmates have access to numerous rehabilitation programs, ranging from educational to vocational, that are intended to provide skills and avenues for inmates’ success — for life both inside and outside the prison walls.

In 2008, the now-retired San Quentin prison warden Robert Ayers Jr. restarted the San Quentin News to be the “voice of the guys inside,” according to San Quentin public information officer Lt. Sam Robinson.

The decision to re-establish the paper was made only three years after the California Department of Corrections, or CDC, was reorganized into the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, with the extra “R” for rehabilitation. The department was also restructured to be more efficient and effective, according to the CDCR’s website.

Since these changes, rehabilitation has been an “essential” part of the CDCR’s mission, according to Robinson.

At the time of the restructuring, California’s recidivism rate, or the rate at which inmates return to prison within three years of their release, was at a recent high of 67.5 percent, according to the CDCR news website. By 2011, the rate had dropped to less than 45 percent.

“Being in prison alone doesn’t change a guy — you have to give them access to new perspectives,” Robinson said. “They may not take advantage of the programs, but it’s incumbent on us to have them.”

The CDCR directly offers educational programs such as adult education classes that help inmates earn GED certificates and vocational programs that prepare inmates for careers outside of prison. Volunteer organizations also provide other opportunities, such as access to higher education.

One organization, the Prison University Project, or PUP, provides college classes at San Quentin State Prison, with local professors volunteering as teachers. Through PUP, inmates have the opportunity to earn associate of art degrees at no cost to taxpayers, according to Robinson. Other volunteer groups support inmate-run programs by offering guidance and assisting with research, as inmates have limited internet access.

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor Bill Drummond, who brings a class of campus students to the prison in order to collaborate with the San Quentin News every semester, said programs such as the newspaper are important because they give inmates opportunities to make connections and learn skills that are useful after their release.

Drummond defines rehabilitation, in part, as helping inmates move past the “persona,” or out of the mindset in which they committed their crime.

“One of the ways that you do that is by keeping their creativity engaged and not having them sit in their cell, thinking about how life has treated them poorly,” Drummond said. “Most of the guys on that newspaper had no idea that they would be working on that paper when they went to prison.”

In addition to the newspaper, other projects, such as the prison’s podcast “Ear Hustle,” give inmates a voice. “Ear Hustle,” which is prison slang for eavesdropping, was co-founded by San Quentin inmate Antwan Williams, former inmate Earlonne Woods and visual artist Nigel Poor.

Currently in its fourth season of production, “Ear Hustle” chronicles the experiences of inmates within the prison, from having cellmates to facing re-entry. It is not only popular within San Quentin but has also garnered a lot of outside attention.

“It’s amazing to us how much (‘Ear Hustle’) has resonated with others outside of our environment,” Robinson said. “I don’t think we could’ve anticipated the way ‘Ear Hustle’ has resonated outside the prison walls.”

Like the San Quentin News, “Ear Hustle” has also proved to teach valuable skills to the inmates involved in its production. Woods joined the San Quentin chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists while in prison, and after completing his parole last year, he went on to work full time for the radio company that helps produce “Ear Hustle.”

Other programs offered in the prison include the 1000 Mile Club, a running club that hosts a yearly marathon within the San Quentin prison walls — 105 laps around the lower prison yard — in addition to other races.

Over the past decade, the 1000 Mile Club has grown from just 20 runners to approximately 60, according to Frank Ruona, the club’s head coach. Ruona, who began volunteering soon after the club was formed in 2005, described coaching the club as “fun” and said inmates who participate find the program “helpful.”

The 1000 Mile Club’s yearly marathon, which was the subject of a recent documentary film titled “26.2 to Life,” was inspired when one of the inmates, who had been running 20 miles on the weekends, asked Ruona if he thought the inmate could run a marathon.

In recent years, California has given the CDCR more funding for rehabilitation programs. Between 2013 and this year, the department received an additional $64 million for “in-prison” rehabilitation programs, according to the California Health Report.

The funding is distributed among the state’s 33 prisons, but San Quentin does a good job with rehabilitation programs, according to Robinson.

“I like to say that we set the bar, but I may be biased,” Robinson said. “We’ve done it for a long time, but we’re not the only ones — the (emphasis on rehabilitation) is systematic.”

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.