Jody Lewen, who volunteered to teach inmates at San Quentin eight years ago, today heads the prison’s college program.
“I feel so strongly that everyone who is willing and able should be provided access to higher education,” said Lewen, director of the Patten University extension program at San Quentin. “I see this as a powerful opportunity to provide this access to people who would otherwise not have it.”
Lewen is the recipient of the 2006 Peter E. Haas Public Service Award given by the University of California at Berkeley, where she has a doctorate in rhetoric. She has a master’s degree in philosophy and comparative literature from Freie Universitt in Berlin.
She gave a lecture called “The Promise of Higher Education at San Quentin” during a ceremony at Cal’s Doe Library on Saturday.
Lila Blanco, associate director of university events, said Lewen was selected from 23 nominees.
Blanco said an eight-member committee felt Lewen best met the award criteria, which includes being a Cal alumnus who has made “a significant voluntary public contribution.” The award recognizes efforts illustrating the impact an individual can make through social change. The focus is on four areas: community service, health care, environmental work and education.
The most exciting thing about the award is the message it conveys that the university community is taking the issue of higher education for prisoners and the larger issue of the California criminal justice system seriously, and that is just good for everyone. It is good for the prison population and it is good for the state,” said Lewen, 42, of Berkeley.
San Quentin Lt. Eric Messick called Lewen a zealous professional who transformed the lives of many inmates.
“I have seen education turn the lives of many men around,” Messick said. “I have observed men who thought their only direction was criminal activity, through education and new forms of logic create a new reality for themselves. It all happened because Jody Lewen is zealous when it comes to promoting education for these men and because of all the volunteer instructors she brings in. Our appreciation goes out to them all.”
Lewen started as a volunteer teacher in the prison college program in 1999 – teaching English composition, literature and critical thinking – before taking over the program in 2000.
“By June, 68 students will have completed the associate of arts degrees, and hundreds others will have taken part in the program before returning to the community,” Lewen said.
She is executive director of the nonprofit Prison University Project founded in 2003.
“Its mission was to provide support to the college program at San Quentin because the program needed a budget, a vehicle to raise funds for textbooks and staff salaries,” Lewen said. “Over time, its mission has grown to become more involved with public education and advocating on issues related to reforming the criminal justice system.”
Attribution: This originally appeared on Marin Independent Journal on April 22, 2007. Read Story
Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.