Geology 101 in Prison

By Megan Sever | August 12, 2005

When Matt d’Alessio and Loraine Lundquist get dressed in the morning, they have to put more thought into their clothing choice than average college professors. They cannot wear denim or anything that shade of blue, nothing gray or orange, and for Lundquist especially, nothing remotely revealing or provocative. This is because in the evening, the geologist and physicist will be in prison — teaching math, physics and geology — and they “need to be distinguishable from the inmates when viewed through a sniper’s rifle,” d’Alessio says. On the way to class, the professors (who are married to each other) will go through three guarded gates, metal detectors and searches. It’s all in a day’s work with the prison university program at California’s San Quentin State Priso

An innovative program at San Quentin State Prison in California is offering college degrees to inmates, who can take courses in philosophy, sociology, government and geology. Photograph courtesy of Heather Rowley.

In 1996, with the support of the warden, a professor from the University of California (UC) at Davis, along with Patten University, a small nondenominational college in Oakland, Calif., began the prison university program. They recruited faculty and graduate student volunteers from local universities, including UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC San Francisco and Sonoma State University, to teach, says Jody Lewen, who, as director of the university program, jokingly calls herself “president of a microscopic college.”

About 1,500 of the prison’s 6,000 inmates are eligible to participate in the college program, which offers an Associate of Arts degree. Each semester, about 200 men participate. They are required to have a high school diploma or the equivalent, cannot be on death row, and must have been on “good behavior for awhile,” says d’Alessio, who taught at Berkeley as a graduate student and is now a post-doc with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. About a third of the students are “lifers,” he says, and there is an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the crimes that landed the students in their current situation.

Classes are standard associate’s degree courses, offered in everything from English literature, world history and American government, to psychology, sociology, math and geology. Most of the inmates begin with remedial math and composition classes, and everyone has to take general education requirement courses, Lewen says.

The classes themselves are roughly two hours long, twice a week, d’Alessio says, and “they’re not easy.” The students are graded, get grade-point averages and graduate. The classrooms, inside a three-floor education building on the prison grounds, are as “institutional” as any college with white walls, big windows, chalk blackboards and ugly desks, he says. But that is where the similarities end.

To be a professor at the prison university, educators have to get a security clearance from the prison administration, Lewen says. Then, in addition to training conducted by the program director, the professors undergo a four- to five-hour training at the prison that is “incredibly intimidating,” says Lundquist, who is a physics graduate student at Berkeley. The prison officials who run the training “are trying to get across the idea of how dangerous inmates can be,” she says.

The training focuses on rules, Lundquist says, such as never bringing gifts or doing favors for the inmates, and never discussing personal lives. The institution’s concern, d’Alessio says, is, for example, if a student earns a bad grade and is angry with the professor for it, and the student knows about a loved one at home, they might have a friend on the outside exact revenge. These are just precautions, Lewen says, and in the nearly 10 years the program has been running, there has never been an incident. “Once you’re in the classroom, all the fears and intimidations fade away and these guys are like any other students,” d’Alessio says. “You just teach.”

One of the biggest differences between teaching at San Quentin and Berkeley, d’Alessio reveals, is the students themselves. At San Quentin, classes are all male. The students are mostly from underrepresented ethnic groups and urban populations, and were generally in the bottom 5 percent of their high school classes. “Many of these guys previously failed in education. Now they say, ‘I didn’t get this stuff in high school. Could you go over it again because I really want to understand it this time?’” he says. They may not have the backgrounds that his Berkeley students have, he says, but they have the desire.

The prisoners are “absolutely model students, respectful and enthusiastic,” d’Alessio says. Additionally, the San Quentin students “are extremely grateful for anything you give them,” says Jenny Pehl, a mineralogy graduate student at Berkeley, who teaches geology and math at the prison. “I don’t think we’ve ever left after class without being thanked,” she says.

Teaching, however, is not as easy as it is elsewhere, Pehl says, especially geology. At San Quentin, the only supplies the students are allowed are rock samples (as long as they are smaller than a fist), textbooks (only those admitted by the administration) and colored pencils — but even those were rejected at first, d’Alessio adds.

Geology is a visual science, and “one we like to make local,” d’Alessio says, “but we’re severely limited.” Aerial photography of anywhere near the prison is forbidden, and maps are explicitly prohibited — the concern is that aerial photos or maps could be used to plan escape routes, he says. Even playdough, which most geology 101 students remember fondly using to understand anticlines and synclines, is forbidden as it could be used to jam locks. So, Pehl says, they clear all lesson materials with the prison administration before the semester begins. And, she says, “we get creative.”

For example, field trips might seem impossible at a prison. But San Quentin is the oldest prison in the state, d’Alessio points out, and itself has a rich geologic history. So the professors obtained permission for two field trips to the yard. “The prison yard and walls are falling apart,” he explains, making it easy to illustrate the laws of superposition from the cross-sections of the stratigraphy of layers of concrete. From the yard, the students could also see Mount Tamalpais, a craggy mountain, and the rolling hills overlooking San Francisco. “We stood in the middle of the yard and looked” at these two different types of topography and “questioned why they were different — it was extraordinarily powerful,” he says. It just goes to show that geology can be taught anywhere, he adds.

Geology, along with everything the professors teach, gives the inmates “a new view of the world,” Pehl says. Ninety-five percent of prisoners will be released at some point even if they have life sentences, Lewen says, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, at least 65 percent of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years. However, recidivism rates of inmates who participate in prison education programs are about five times lower than of those who did not participate, she says: Less than 10 percent of prisoners with at least an associate’s degree will return to prison.

In California, it costs more than $30,000 per year to keep a prisoner locked up. It seems it would be better to spend a little more money on educating these guys, rather than re-incarcerating them, Lewen says. San Quentin is the only prison in California and one of a few in the country that have degree-granting programs onsite. But it’s really not that hard to get a program like this started, she says.

The San Quentin university program runs entirely on donations — less than $500,000 a year including volunteer time. This type of program could be run anywhere, she says, with a few enterprising individuals, a couple of nearby colleges from which to pool volunteers, and a friendly warden.

Attribution: This originally appeared on Geotimes on August, 2005. Read Story

Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.