A college behind bars
Campus volunteers bring education to San Quentin

By Claudine Zap and Cathy Cockrell


Dennis Pratt, left, and George Lamb — graduates of the college program at San Quentin State Prison — celebrate at a June 2002 commencement ceremony. They and 11 other prisoners received their AA degrees that day.
Robert Rubin photo

15 January 2003 | Eleven college students sit in a circle, their literary anthologies open to “Hamlet.” The instructor has asked them each to choose and discuss a character in the play; again and again, the prince is mentioned. His third soliloquy, “To be or not to be…,” says one student, “covers a lifetime in words.” “I can relate to Hamlet because of his inner struggles,” adds another.

Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of power, betrayal, and murder has struck a chord with these students — all inmates at San Quentin State Prison. At first the students were intimidated by Elizabethan English, says Rebecca Ginsburg, a recent Berkeley PhD graduate who teaches “Introduction to Literature” in this unlikely setting. But students “stuck with it,” she notes, and now hold lively discussions of Shakespeare’s dramas.

Ginsberg is one of 60 people from throughout the Bay Area — most of them Berkeley graduate students, a few of them campus faculty and staff — who teach college classes at San Quentin. The two-year associate’s degree program, accredited by Patten College, a Christian college located in Oakland, has for a number of years been the sole onsite degree-granting program at any of California’s 33 state prisons. Since its inception in 1996 — around the same time that Congress banned federal tuition-assistance to prisoners and California ended public funding for higher education in state prisons — it has been kept alive entirely by volunteers. The program now runs year-round, offering 12 classes per semester, for fall, spring, and summer semesters, to approximately 140 prisoners.

A fortuitous location
That college classes exist at all inside San Quentin — a medium-security prison in Marin County — is due, in part, to the prison’s fortuitous location in an area rife with well-educated people willing to teach in a penal institution. “In general, we don’t build prisons where we build universities, and we don’t build universities where we build prisons,” says Boalt Hall Law Professor Frank Zimring, an expert in criminal justice statistics. “It’s relatively rare.”

San Quentin — which opened in 1852, before most Bay Area educational institutions, and now within close proximity of numerous colleges and universities — is an exception. The Berkeley campus, among them, is just across the bay. Over the years, it has provided a steady stream of graduate students, who have traveled to San Quentin to teach math, film studies, ethics, South African and Latin American history, astronomy, and dozens of other subjects.

Jody Lewen, who completed her PhD in rhetoric last month, taught communications, composition, critical thinking, and literature in San Quentin for two years before she became head of the program in 2000. (For her steadfast efforts, she received a 2002 Chancellor’s Community Service Award.)

Lewen first learned about the program the way most volunteers do, through word of mouth. “I knew it was a good idea to provide education to inmates,” she recalls, “but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into a prison.” Once inside, she overcame her initial wariness. “The students are extraordinarily motivated,” she says, “and this makes them a pleasure to work with. For teachers — especially those who wish their professional work had more of a direct political impact — this is a dream job.”

In November, thanks to a grant from a private donor, Patten College hired Lewen as assistant professor of literature and head of the San Quentin college program, making her its first paid director.

Pedagogic challenges, moral dilemmas
Running a college program inside a prison, it turns out, involves all the usual pedagogic challenges, plus a wealth of practical obstacles and moral dilemmas that educators on the outside seldom face. How do you deal with class attendance and homework assignments, for instance, in a setting in which transfers, parole hearings, institutional lockdowns, and involuntary changes to work schedules are commonplace?

Volunteers’ political ideals are tested daily against the realities of working within a penal institution — whose warden has ultimate say as to the fate of voluntary programs inside. “We not only have to abide by certain rules,” says Lewen, “but need to present ourselves as non-hostile to the institution. If volunteer service providers seem contemptuous of the institution, its rules, or its staff, it’s generally only a matter of time before the program is eliminated.”

Each semester begins with a three-hour training session, required for all new volunteers. Lewen covers important do’s and don’ts. Among them: Visitors may not wear inmate colors — blue or orange — or anything deemed “sexually suggestive.” No physical contact with inmates, except for shaking hands. Never run. Don’t give prisoners anything, or accept anything from them, that hasn’t been cleared beforehand with the appropriate administrator.

And while instructors are theoretically free to teach whatever course materials they choose, films are screened for “appropriateness” of content, and books with anything resembling “sexual content” are occasionally disallowed at the gate.

‘Exhilirating’ teaching experience
Despite such obstacles, the San Quentin college program offers both a rare and sought-after opportunity for inmates and an incomparable learning and teaching experience for most volunteers.

After delivering his first lecture there on early Jewish and Christian history, Eric Gruen, a Berkeley professor of classics and history, says he got hooked. “The students are so interesting and interested and do their work so conscientiously and intelligently; … it as a pleasure to engage in conversation with them.”

Kathleen McCarthy, a Berkeley associate professor of classics and comparative literature, has been a guest lecturer in Ancient History at San Quentin, and a teaching assistant for a literature class.

“As a teaching experience, it’s incredibly exhilarating,” she says, “because the students are so energized…. You feel so much that it matters to them. They’re sucking up every word.”

On one occasion, McCarthy lectured on the Roman Republic — “an oligarchic system that had no pretense to democracy.” San Quentin students “immediately wanted to draw parallels to American democracy and its limitations,” she says. “I didn’t get from them any sense of ‘why study ancient history?’ They were interested in Roman society both on its own terms and as a point of comparison.”

Still, teaching inside prison gates raises many complex issues for McCarthy. In a setting where some students will soon rejoin society-at-large, while others may remain inside for decades or a lifetime, it’s natural to question whether your primary role, as a teacher, is to provide skills-based training or to offer knowledge for its own sake. (The program, in fact, aims to do both.) And while she believes that educating prisoners benefits society as well as the individuals involved, the experience has shed light on parts of the equation she once tended to minimize.

“In the past I think I had, unconsciously, a more naďve view,” says McCarthy. “I’ve had to come to terms with the seriousness of many prisoners’ crimes, without losing sight of the value of education for them. I hold a much more complicated understanding of the criminal justice system than I did going in.”

Deliberations of this nature are something Lewen welcomes. She considers universal access to higher education a basic right, and education for prisoners a service both to inmates and the public. (To support the latter, she cites statistics demonstrating that the more education inmates receive, the less likely they are to return to prison once they parole.) But in her mind the program serves other ends, as well — one being to help effect “the rehumanization of prisoners in the public imagination,” as she puts it.

“The dilemma,” she says, “is that most of the public is totally isolated from prison; but if we ever hope to change the system in a substantive way, we need to challenge public misconceptions about people in prison.”

Lewen has big plans for the future: funding for books, supplies, and an undergraduate library; expanding the program to offer a four-year bachelor’s degree. When that happens, the student population will be there. More than 30 San Quentin students have earned an AA degree since the program’s inception, and many are eager to continue.

“There’s no limit to what the program could help accomplish, if we really devoted ourselves to this,” says Lewen. “If the UC Berkeley community — staff and faculty and students and administrators — were collectively to decide to pour some serious energy into building a high-quality liberal arts college at San Quentin, we could potentially change state and nationwide policy on criminal justice.”

Claudine Zap wrote the original version of this article for ”The Graduate,” the Graduate Division newsletter.

Volunteer for prison program
The San Quentin College Program is always looking for a few good teachers. The program offers an Associate of Arts degree, so the curriculum focuses on lower-division courses, as well as basic skills.

“We especially need volunteers who are as comfortable talking about grammar or basic math as they are about complex and abstract ideas,” notes program director Jody Lewen. Graduate students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to get involved. Each class meets twice a week. One session is led by the teacher; two to four teaching assistants lead the second session.

The program is also seeking fundraisers and people with expertise needed to build a library collection at San Quentin — which a rigorous bachelor’s-degree program would require. It is also often in need of teachers and teaching assistants for Spanish language classes.

For information, contact Jody Lewen at


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