Jody Lewen, Ph.D., first entered San Quentin prison in 1999 as a volunteer instructor in an educational outreach program to inmates. As a graduate student in the rhetoric department at U.C. Berkeley, Lewen was teaching classes on campus and working on her dissertation. “I started teaching at San Quentin out of interest and excitement at the idea of being able to deliver quality education to people who didn’t necessarily have it, but it was something to do on the side,” Lewen recalls. “My plan was to finish my dissertation and go into the conventional job market. Then I fell in love with the program and got very engaged.”
When the program coordinator announced he was leaving, and no one stepped up to keep it going, Lewen decided to take over. “I saw how little anybody cared what happened to people in prison,” she says. “That’s a precarious situation for any group of humans.”
Lewen wondered what the program could become if there was enough manpower and resources to support it, and decided to found the nonprofit Prison University Project to raise funds for expansion. As an increasing number of inmates enrolled in classes, the Prison University Project became the infrastructure for a robust academic program offering a general education associate of arts degree and intensive college preparatory courses. In the past two decades, nearly 4,000 students have participated.
“We’re letting people who have been marginalized, degraded and left for dead know that somebody does care about them,” Lewen says. “I derive so much satisfaction from feeling useful. Seeing the good we can do just by showing up and taking the time to give our students a high-quality education – that’s fuel for me.”