Inmates Find Hope in College Classes at San Quentin Prison

    Inmates Find Hope in College Classes at San Quentin Prison
    Photo: JoAnn Mar
    Professor Sookyoung Lee teaches a class on critical thinking and research to inmates at San Quentin prison in California.

    This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

    Last week we told you about a prison training program in the American Northwest. It teaches women in prison to start their own businesses after their release. Today we tell you about one of the few prisons in America that offer college-level classes: San Quentin State Prison in California.

    Jody Lewen volunteered to teach in the college program at San Quentin in nineteen ninety-nine. She was a graduate student. The program had a small group of volunteers and no money. But a year later the director resigned. Ms. Lewen agreed to run the program until a permanent director could be found.

    JODY LEWEN: "But once I started doing the work and got more deeply involved, I also began to see the potential the program had. And I started to think more and more about what this program could become. And the people it can serve and the values and the ideals that could also address.."

    The Prison University Project has expanded under Ms. Lewen's leadership. The goal is to prepare men to lead thoughtful and productive lives inside and outside of prison.

    Twenty courses are offered each semester. Classes this spring included English, math, United States history, and Russian and Soviet history. Other courses included Asian-American theater, Spanish, biology, sociology, philosophy and criminal justice.

    Three hundred inmates take classes every semester. They earn credits toward an associate of arts degree in liberal arts from Patten University in Oakland, California.

    Ms. Lewen says getting teachers to volunteer is not difficult. But some are nervous about their first trip to San Quentin.

    JODY LEWEN: "You know, all the stereotypes people have in their minds about people who are incarcerated, and they assume they're a lot of troublemakers and people are goofing off and they do not want to do their work. That stereotype has nothing to do with reality."

    She has recruited more than one hundred fifty volunteers, including graduate students from colleges and universities in the area.

    Charles Spence hopes to earn parole from prison one day. He needs a few more courses to receive his associate's degree, and he wants to earn a master's degree in psychology.

    CHARLES SPENCE: "This experience really has changed my life. It has given me a lot of tools on how to express myself. This program is really rare in the prison setting, so we are really lucky to have an opportunity to get an education, especially with the way the economy is out there now. And odds are stacked against us in being convicted felons. This actually gives us a lot of hope, and hopefully will help us succeed when we walk out the door."

    More than one hundred prisoners have received an associate's degree. Many more have continued their college studies after their release. The project receives no state or federal money. It operates with donations from people and foundations.

    Jody Lewen wants to make a free college education available to more of the five thousand five hundred inmates at San Quentin. There is a long waiting list of prisoners who want to take classes.

    And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. I'm Bob Doughty.


    Contributing: JoAnn Mar