The Joy of Learning ... at San Quentin

Cal faculty members teach degree program to students behind bars

By Kate Rix
Photos by Heather Rowley

The students in the classroom settle into their seats and open their notebooks. “Hand forward your papers,” the graduate student instructor says. It’s the second essay of the semester, and for some of these students, among the first college papers they’ve written.

“Was the workshop on writing this paper helpful?” Tom Hendrickson, the history graduate student instructor, asks.

“Yes. Tremendously,” answers one student. All the others agree, although one adds, “We’ll see what our grades look like. Then we’ll know how helpful it was.” Laughter ripples across the windowless classroom, which is warm from late spring weather.

Instructor Matt Gray (center) with the theater improvisation class.

A typical classroom moment, but this is anything but a typical group of students. Each of the 15 men in this class of ancient history is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. Their classroom, while windowless to the dusty yard outside, has a glass wall facing out to security guards seated in the hall. No one but the inmates are allowed to wear blue, because prisoner uniform consists of jeans and long, light blue shirts with the word “CDC PRISONER” in large letters across the back. Visitors, including instructors who come at least once every week, are escorted across the yard, where other inmates exercise and play basketball, to the classroom portables.

Yet inside the class, past the various security checkpoints, it’s possible to forget that this is a medium-security prison. These men are here to learn, to discuss what they are reading, to engage one another in what may be the prison’s only racially integrated environment, and to study history.

“We learn from our mistakes and we learn from our successes,” says Dan, a prisoner who is a student in the class, explaining why he’s taking a history class. “We all hear about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but how did it rise and how did it fall?”

California’s oldest prison, with its fortress-like facades and 1890s-era wrought-iron front gate, San Quentin offers the state’s only on-site prison college degree program. About 250 prisoners each semester enroll in college preparatory or associate of arts courses through Patten University at San Quentin, a program run by the Prison University Project. Twelve courses are offered each semester, in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science. All instructors are volunteers, and many, like Tom Hendrickson, are from U.C. Berkeley. So far 74 men have completed their degrees at San Quentin.

A student works on a problem in chemistry class.

“Education isn’t the goal of the prison, clearly,” says Lewen, gesturing toward the ceiling of a barn-like structure that houses several math courses. While the building could easily accommodate two levels of classrooms, students and instructors crowd into the space, working in storage “cages” that have doors made of bars. “We have to use every nook and cranny.”

Math classes make up the largest percentage of offerings, but courses in English and history are well subscribed. In fact, for humanities professors, teaching at San Quentin can be a reminder of the intrinsic value of their work.

Kathleen McCarthy, associate professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, is co-teaching the Ancient History course. While many of her students at San Quentin may not have the same level of academic preparation as Berkeley students, she says that the core exercises of interpreting history, encountering societies that operated differently than we do today, and interpreting the similarities between our world and ancient civilization take place in much clearer relief in a prison classroom.

Aside from the logistical challenges of teaching in a prison — students do not have email, so communication outside of class is impossible, and instructors must send all their course materials days before class to be screened by prison staff — McCarthy says the experience has been extremely rewarding.

“For me as a teacher, teaching at San Quentin feels like an intensified version of what I do,” McCarthy says. "A lot of these guys never expected to be in a college classroom, so to be treated as a student is a new experience for them and they bring a pure intensity to learning.”

Students may have never taken a history course and may have had little experience writing college papers. Yet San Quentin students are more vocal in class, McCarthy says. They do not hesitate to point out similarities between Roman society and our own. For example, votes in Rome were cast in order of a person’s wealth. By the time a poor person voted, an election may have already been decided.

“That’s good, that they are looking for parallels” McCarthy says. “But sometimes I have to push them to think about history is a more nuanced way. What does it mean, I ask them, that, unlike the Romans, the U.S. actually codifies equality in its constitution? That we strive for equality even if it seems that we don’t always achieve it?”

Victoria Kahn, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, has also taught at San Quentin, with similar impressions. Volunteering in a prison classroom was, for Kahn as well as for many who teach there, never what she imagined she would be doing when she chose to teach. But the rewards have been large.

“The first semester I taught, they thanked me for showing up. The San Quentin students appreciate the power of the classroom,” she says. “It is very empowering for them because they are treated respectfully, like human beings. You have 150 percent of their attention.”

One student in particular made an impression on Kahn. He was very engaged at the beginning of the semester. Keeping with the course’s theme, the class read Kafka’s Metamorphosis. At that point, the student stopped coming. Eventually, he returned, Kahn recalls, and he said that he had had a hard time with the book because Kafka was a Jew. Then to Kahn’s surprise, the student ended up re-reading the book and writing a paper on it.

“He wrote that Kafka had a lot to teach about alienation,” Kahn recalls. “Later in class he actually said, ‘I really have come to appreciate what literature can do to change your mind.’”

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| Updated: Jun 03, 2009