Prison University Project

2015 National Humanities Medalist

HUMANITIES, Fall 2016, Volume 37, Number 4

At one of America’s most notorious prisons, a corps of volunteer instructors is teaching inmates about the relationship between knowledge and freedom.

The Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison is the only on-site, degree-granting higher education program in California’s prison system. Inside a trailer, inmates take classes taught by professors and graduate students from Bay Area colleges. These students are earning college credits, tuition free.

More than 1.5 million people are incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons. Many enter as teenagers without a high school diploma.

The San Quentin college program started in 1996 in the wake of new laws barring prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. As prison education programs around the country collapsed, the Prison University Project began with two volunteer instructors, donated textbooks, and no budget, says Jody Lewen, PUP’s executive director. She joined the program as a volunteer herself in 1998 while in graduate school at UC–Berkeley, and a year later found herself in charge.

“I ended up taking it over just so it wouldn’t fold,” she said. In 2003, she founded a nonprofit to raise money to administer and grow the program, which is funded entirely through private donations.

About 350 San Quentin inmates between the ages of 18 and 75 take classes in humanities, math, and social and physical sciences each semester through the Prison University Project, with many more on a waiting list. Because many are not yet ready for college, 90 percent get up to speed in PUP prep courses. To date, Lewen says, approximately 2,000 prisoners have participated in the program, with 150 receiving associate’s degrees awarded through Oakland-based Patten University.

PUP’s team of 130 volunteers from universities like Stanford, UC–Berkeley, and San Francisco State are asked to teach the same way, says Lewen, as they would at their home institutions. Lewen remembers her own early experiences as a volunteer, such as when she asked a question and everyone in the class raised their hands. “I’d never seen that before.”

Inside the stultifying and soul-shattering environment of prison, Lewen says, PUP’s classes supply the “oxygen” inmates need to imagine a different future. “Their sense of the world at large evolves, what their aspirations are, and they realize what they’re capable of.”

Among those who credit PUP with helping them turn their lives around is Pat Mims, who served 20 years behind bars for second-degree murder. Mims dropped out of ninth grade to run away from home. Life on the streets turned him toward crime, he says. He bounced around California prisons for ten years until transferring to San Quentin, where he enrolled in the college program. Because of the PUP classes, “I could think critically. I could articulate my thoughts,” says Mims. “I started seeing a different way to live.”

Mims recalls waking up at 2 and 3 a.m. to study and write papers in his cell before heading to his job as a clerk within the prison. “During the day I was thinking about the paper I was writing,” he says. “It helped me get away from prison while I was there.”

Lewen and Mims say that PUP has helped change the culture within San Quentin, making the prison both safer and more humane. Mims regularly encouraged other inmates to join the program, and after attaining his associate’s degree in 2002, remained involved with PUP as a mentor and tutor to other prisoners. If trouble seemed to be brewing among other prisoners, Mims and his fellow students would try to defuse the situation. “I wanted to go to school; I didn’t want to get in trouble,” says Mims. “We were thinking about our futures.”

After being released in 2009, Mims enrolled at San Francisco State University, and was relieved to find that his college preparation was equal to his new peers’. He also began working for Bay Area Women Against Rape, where he developed police protocols for assisting juvenile victims of human trafficking—for which he earned an FBI leadership award. More recently he’s been working for Contra Costa County to manage reentry services for prisoners released on parole.

The Prison University Program also helps keep released convicts out of prison. Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2012 show that 65 percent of prisoners in the California system are re-incarcerated within three years of leaving prison. By comparison, the recidivism rate among PUP graduates is 17 percent, and none have returned for violent crimes, says Lewen.

At the moment, Prison University Project serves only a fraction of the more than 4,000 prisoners housed at San Quentin, though Lewen hopes it can be expanded and replicated elsewhere. “Ideally we’ll be a model, not just for prison higher education, but for higher education, period,” says Lewen, who contends that PUP demonstrates “what you have to do if you want to include everyone and meet them where they are.”