An interview with former staff member and student David Cowan

By | October 22, 2021

This year, our longtime Director of Operations David Cowan left his role at Mount Tamalpais College to devote himself full time to his work as Executive Director at Bonafide. Bonafide’s mission is to ensure that people affected by incarceration have the material, emotional and advocacy support they need to both integrate into society and build healthy, productive lives going forward, and we are so proud to partner with this organization and to have known David since his time as a college student at San Quentin. We sat down with David to ask him about his time as a student and then a staff member at MTC and what inspired the work he’s doing now.

What was your educational journey like?

It was always a desire of my family that I would go to college. When I became old enough, I joined the military. I had talked to a recruiter and they said they would pay for my college, and that I could go to college while I was there. But of course, I didn’t. While I was in the military I committed a crime, and went to prison. 

After I was arrested, my parents flew out {from Pennsylvania} to see me. At that point I didn’t feel like college was an option. I felt like there was no recovery. I didn’t even want to live, let alone think about the future. But one of the things that redirected my trajectory was that my dad said, on that first visit, “Whether or not you recover from this depends on the decisions that you make from here on out.” That was the first inkling I’d had that recovering from my decision was even possible.  It completely changed the direction of my thinking. My parents made me promise that I wouldn’t let the system change me, and that my number one priority would be to come home. 

How did you eventually become a college student? 

At first, I looked at some college programs {at another prison}. They were all correspondence. I attended some, but they weren’t real to me. I felt like the correspondence courses were just handing something over without care for the quality. It wasn’t the experience that I had thought it would be. Then, kind of by chance, I ended up at San Quentin. One of the first things I saw was a sign-up sheet for the college. 

I met Jody during my first orientation. There were just two staff members back then. It was amazing. The expectations were for us to learn and to think critically. In this program we were never treated like prisoners, which is valuable and rare. It felt like a training in being a free person, with  a focus on being a student. I felt a sense of fulfillment of the promise to my parents in a way that I hadn’t felt before. 

Why was the quality of your college education so important to you? 

At that time people with indeterminate sentences were not getting out. But I felt that if I ever did get out, I would be too old to do really tough physical labor. So I knew that I needed my brain. 

I was very suspicious at the beginning, looking for any sign of dumbing down the curriculum, or the instructors having low expectations of us. Early on some of the instructors would teach the same class inside and at a university, and some of them would bring their classes from the outside in so they could teach everyone at the same time. Having that proof that we were learning the same things that the students were learning outside and that we were able to excel with real curriculum, not dumbed down for prisoners, was very satisfying. It made me feel secure to know that I was getting a quality education. And that meant that I would be able to compete in the outside world, or at least survive. I came back to that belief from my father. I always had this underlying belief that I could work my way out. 

How did you end up joining the staff of MTC? 

I became the clerk {an administrative support role in the program}. I would set up the class boxes for the instructors, and gather and deliver mail to students. I had a reputation for being helpful to everybody, and the college program was so revered. If I was delivering papers for the college, I could go anywhere. Even places where I wasn’t supposed to be going because of my skin color. In prison, there’s this really strict segregation between communities. 

The most special thing about being a clerk is that it was embedded in the culture of the organization that I was a person. Unlike any other job in the prison, I wasn’t called an inmate while I was working, I was a staff member. They were holding me to the same standards as other staff. It was preparation for the outside. The staff never subscribed to the way the prison culture wanted them to be. That was the most valuable thing, in my time inside as a student and as a clerk. 

What was your experience of release and re-entry like?

Jody offered me a job before I’d even gotten out.  So I just walked right into a job. She knew I had a lot of things to process, so she said I could come in a day, in a month, in six months—the job would be open. So I took two days off. And then I went to the office. 

The staff was instrumental in where I am now. Amy Rosa, a staff member at the time, taught me how to get to work by bike. She showed up at my transitional house early in the morning with two bikes attached to her car and said, “we’re going to learn how to bike to work.” With other staff members, we walked all over San Francisco and they showed me how to ride BART. They were really instrumental in my re-entry. It was very lonely and depressing going to the transitional house after work and getting lost if I tried to explore by myself, but they were there. They are the inspiration behind Bonafide’s Critical Adventures program. We do those things that the staff did for me. 

What is your hope for the future of MTC? 

MTC is breaking new ground in the life of the organization. One of the things I think is critical is that it doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the students are people. That sense of responding to humanity – it’s kind of extra.  It’s not something that’s required to run a college program, but I think in this context it is. And that means work that isn’t necessarily in the job description. 

MTC has been a bigger part of my life than anybody realizes. It wasn’t just a school or a job. It gave birth to, and nourished, so much that is me. 

You can learn more about Bonafide and get involved in their critical work here. Thank you, David, for all that you do!