Classes held at Patten University&–s San Quentin extension campus are just like those that one might find at any accredited junior college. Students stay up late or wake up early to finish assignments on time. The classrooms are packed, and sometimes students have to help each other out to work through a piece of literature. Except almost all of them attend night classes. And all of them are wearing the same light blue shirt.
Every year, some 150 inmates serving time in the San Quentin State Prison gather in small classrooms after dinner to discuss Shakespeare and math, among other topics. Led by instructors who hail from local universities, these classes are the result of the Prison University Project (PUP), a nonprofit committed to bringing college-level and college preparatory classes to prison inmates.
Offering around 12 classes every semester, the PUP prepares inmates for an associate’s degree, or at least an academic path. Inmates with a GED or higher are eligible to take the college-level offered. Those just short of the required high school diploma may take the college prep classes.
PUP executive director Jody Lewen doesn’t think the location—not exactly prime real estate for a college—makes any difference to the quality of education. “Actually,” she says, “it might be better than the average college degree program. The class sizes are smaller. Classes at Berkeley might have 150 people, and we have about 30.”
Lewen has other reasons to think so. The project’s success relies heavily on an army of volunteer instructors and teaching assistants, many of whom study or teach at local schools such as Cal, Stanford and Sonoma State. “We have a pretty substantial core of people who have been around for several years, and that is a great source of new faculty, too. A lot of them tell their friends,” Lewen says.
“Anytime you spend an extended amount of time in the yard,” he says, “it’s possible to get in trouble, or worse.” Hutton, who has been released from San Quentin, is currently taking classes toward a degree.
For Lewen, the project’s far-reaching impacts cannot be encapsulated in the academic or employment successes of those released from the prison, although they are considerable. Some of the inmates don’t get the opportunity to test the skills they’ve learned in the real world, as roughly 40 percent of them are serving life sentences.
“I think for a lot of people, when they talk about the value of the program, they don’t only talk about jobs,” Lewen says, “they really talk about the impact on their sense of their own potential, or what’s possible for them and their lives.” Lewen wants to take the project to the next level. “[The students] would love us to have a BA program.”
The only thing stopping her is funding. Classroom space is already at a premium; the program will need a new building before any plans for a BA program are made. “The department has basically said that if we could raise the money, we could build a new building,” she says. “That, to me, is the mother of all challenges. We could help so many people if we had that space.”
Learn more at www.prisonuniversityproject.org.