LARB—On the Most Effective, Underfunded College System in the US

By Colin Asher | September 14, 2012
Los Angeles Review of Books

There is a college in California whose campus, if it can be called that, consists of a few portable trailers. Classes are also taught inside a converted laundry facility whose walls don’t reach the ceiling, where learning happens despite the din created by dozens of men in adjacent rooms vying for their teacher’s attention. The school is called the Prison University Project (referred to affectionately as ‘PUP’ by students and instructors alike). It teaches 20 classes a semester and has a total enrollment of under 400 students.

The campus is housed within San Quentin State Penitentiary, also home to California’s death row and to a reception center where new inmates are categorized and sorted by race and security level. Most prisoners then enter the general population at San Quentin, but some are sent to one of the state’s thirty-two other prisons. Those who don’t stay miss their chance at a college education, because no other prison in California offers one.

Hutton was convicted of a crime in Marin County. Normally, prisoners are paroled to the area their crime was committed in but Hutton’s parole was transferred to Santa Rosa, a mid-sized city in the middle of wine country, 55 miles north of San Francisco. He had never been to Santa Rosa, and knew no one who lived there. He was 37 at the time, a multiple felon with a history of drug use and no marketable skills. His family was in Oakland, and the idea of beginning a new life alone in a strange city was terrifying. It would be easier to “start running from the gate,” he thought.

Violating the terms of his parole would have fit the pattern of Hutton’s life neatly — from the age of 17 until his release he was rarely out of the state’s custody — but that was not the decision he made. The few classes Hutton took with PUP “helped me reflect on what I had been doing with myself,” he says. Rather than following his gut instinct, sprinting the moment he heard the prison gate snap shut behind him, he played by the rules. He found a transitional living facility in Oakland that was willing to accept him, contacted his parole officer and requested a transfer that, to his surprise, was approved.

Oakland, a city of 400,000 just southeast of San Quentin, is an unlikely stage for a redemptive second act. When Hutton arrived in 2008, the city had the country’s fifth highest crime rate, and almost two in 10 residents lived in poverty. But it was familiar to him; his son was there, and so was the community college where he planned to continue his education.

Laney College is a colorless Lego Land, built in a style best described as Soviet Modern. It has no manicured lawns, just expanses of concrete punctured by weather-beaten, sporadically placed trees. There is little about the place that inspires striving, or brings to mind thoughts of a brighter future. A sign made of green neon tubes bent to spell the college’s name in loose script hangs from the tallest of the campus’s tomb-like buildings. Despite the school’s shortcomings, Hutton was happy to begin attending, because enrolling at Laney allowed him to continue identifying as a student, which has had a profound effect on his life. For the first time since he was a teenager, Hutton is off parole and not using drugs.

When I arrive for our interview, I find Hutton bent over a keyboard in the office of Laney’s student government, a body he is a proud member of. He is composing an email appeal to fellow students, urging them to protest funding cuts recommended by the college district’s Board of Governors in response to California’s budget deficit. Hutton’s missive includes a link to a video clip of an interview he gave a local TV station during a protest the night before. Proud of his 15 seconds of fame, he plays it for me.

A reporter, standing in front of a banner held by protesters, asks Hutton what he would be doing if he wasn’t in school.

“I’d be doing some things that aren’t acceptable,” Hutton says, and looks into the camera. The hint of a mischievous smile dances across his lips.

Finished at the computer, Hutton leans heavily into his chair, folds his hands across his stomach, and we talk.

Hutton is a large man, with a round face and ink-black hair pulled back and held in place by a series of rubber bands. He has the sort of luck that requires everything in a person’s life go wrong just before — tottering at the edge of a chasm — they’re thrown a rope. Like many people with that type of luck, he is more optimistic about his future than circumstances justify.

Within a year or so he will be finished at Laney, he says, and then he’ll transfer to a four-year school, San Francisco State University, maybe Cal State East Bay, and earn a degree in computer science. Then he wants to do something with computers that will “bring in 60.” Maybe he’ll be a systems administrator. These plans are a stark contrast to his past expectations for himself.

“I was raised on the streets pretty much,” he says. “Homeless since I was like fifteen. Fourteen? I got into tenth grade and never finished anything after that. So, education wasn’t really a priority. I was always out doing drugs, hanging out with friends.”

From an early age, juvenile facilities and local jails filled the role that schools should have filled in his life. After dropping out of high school, Hutton says he was “in some kind of correctional facility or another” until he was sent to prison in 1996. He spent two years behind the wall and came out drug-free, but not much changed. He stayed clear of the criminal justice system until parole ended and, free from the requirement that he submit to drug tests, he began using again.

“The day I got off parole, I just went right into the same stuff I was doing. I lost my job, my home, my car. All within months of starting to use drugs again.”

Once using, it was a near certainty that Hutton would return to prison, which he did. In a strange way, being sent to San Quentin, rather than any other prison in the state, was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. If he had not ended up there, and heard about PUP, his life would likely have continued on the trajectory it was on when he was arrested. “Up until that point, I had been doing pretty-much, nothing-much,” he says. “Drugs […] finding a way to get more drugs. That’s no way to live your life.”

I ask what he thinks he would be doing if he had never begun college in prison. After a pause, he says he would never have considered going to school. He would have looked for unskilled work; with a lengthy criminal record his chances would have been dismal, even without a recession. “I don’t think I would have been that successful. I probably would have been in and out of prison a couple times already. Going through PUP, it gave me some kind of goal to look forward to, something to set my sights on,” he says.

As a high school dropout with a GED he earned during an earlier incarceration, Hutton was about average when he returned to prison in 2006. The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a national survey in 2003, which found that 40 percent of state prisoners had less than a high school education and 28 percent had only a GED. As one former PUP student put it to me, his classmates “were failed by the system long before they did anything illegal.” Being no farther behind than anyone else, Hutton didn’t feel there was any stigma attached to beginning the remedial courses that are the default for all new PUP students.

While we talk about Hutton’s course load, Jabari Aali Shaw walks into the student government office. His son, Amiri, a cherubic 2-year-old with short pin-thin dreadlocks, is spinning around him in crazy circles, like an off-axis moon. He stops just to the side of his father and stares at the large men above him with huge clear eyes. Shaw is there to see Hutton about the protest he’s planning.

Shaw also began his college career in San Quentin. He is a thin man with a sleek, raptor-like face and a full set of gold teeth, tops and bottoms. His hair is woven into long dreadlocks that he wears pulled back. He ends his sentences abruptly, giving the impression he is certain of everything he says. While we talk, Amiri totters about the room trying to occupy himself. From time to time he tugs on his father’s baggy pants and says he wants to leave. “I’m fittin’ to go.” When he gets loud Shaw places a hand gently over Amiri’s upturned face and the boy quiets down immediately.

Shaw’s story is similar to Hutton’s. He grew up here, in Oakland, and dropped out of high school. “My role models were about 30 and I was 13, and they were selling drugs, so I sold drugs,” he says. He spent several years “doing all kind of unmentionables,” during which time he was arrested for robbery, drug possession, drug sales, assault and battery and domestic violence.

“Basically, I was killing myself off. I didn’t have no purpose, didn’t have no wants. I didn’t have no aspirations in life. So I was just running. Every day was every day. I didn’t never plan for tomorrow,” he says.

Now Shaw lives his life in the future more than the present, each day engaged in pursuit of long-term goals. He is working toward a double major, in psychology and Black Studies. When he’s finished at Laney, he will transfer to San Francisco State University. Once he finishes his undergraduate work, Shaw plans to apply to Ph.D. programs. Forward-looking as he is, he still carries in his wallet a prison issued ID card and an expired drivers license with a picture taken before he was sent to prison. Reminders of what he used to be. He pulls these out as we talk and tosses them on the table between us. He shakes his head gently. In each picture his face is stoic, a gaunt mask. The man in the pictures does not look like his future contains a doctorate degree.

“I’m a starving student right now, I’m walking around with no money. I know ways to get some fast money, but at the same time, you know, why would I put myself in that position?” Shaw explains that he carries the pictures with him as reminders of mistakes he has made, so he won’t make them again. If he went back to his old ways, he says, he would get arrested. “Everyone gets arrested.” And then he would be back where he started, “wearing some recycled underwear” and “trying to get back into that class program.”

When the interviews are over and the digital recorder is off we all shake hands and stand around to talk for a while. Both men are noticeably more relaxed. Shaw smiles and places his hand on Amiri’s head.

“You should have told me what story you wanted,” Shaw says.

“I want the real story,” I say.

“‘Cause I didn’t want to tell you about the crushes,” he says with a boyish smile. He’s referring to the fact that the only non-uniformed women in the prison are the volunteer teachers. Both men were very circumspect about this subject while the recorder was on.

“No, no” he laughs. “That’s not why we went to classes.”

But, he admits, that is why he started attending. Someone told him that there were “real” women in class. He used the same line to recruit new students once he was committed to the program, and managed to lure in several friends that were not interested in getting a college degree.

“But when you were going, they were so nice,” he says of the teachers. “So you didn’t want to go to class with nothing, without doing your work.”

“I didn’t say that before but you can use it,” he says.

“Yeah?” I ask. He nods. “‘Cause all the teachers I talked to said their students were very respectful. One told me she worried about getting cat-called when she was teaching at UC Berkeley more than she did at San Quentin,” I say.

Both their faces go tense. “Of course. Of course,” Shaw says. “If anyone ever did anything like that the other inmates would check them.”

“We do check each other,” Hutton says with a tired look.


“Feeling good about providing education to prisoners is like feeling good about dragging people out of the water when there are corpses floating all around you,” Jody Lewen told me the first time we spoke. Lewen has been running PUP since 2000. She employed that graphic metaphor while encouraging me to visit San Quentin, and warning me against adopting the paternalistic tone she hears in journalism about programs that assist prisoners. The public should not be misled, she insisted; teaching twenty classes a semester is nothing. At last reported count, California was holding 133,380 people in state prisons.

Housed in a generic office complex near San Quentin, PUP’s offices are Spartan. Looking through the glass front door, the space seems unoccupied. There is no sign with the group’s name, no receptionist to greet visitors, and nothing on the walls of the main room. When I arrive, Lewen is getting tea from a small kitchen on her way to the conference room, preparing to stuff envelopes with holiday cards that will be sent to the program’s donors. On the front of the card, 14 grown men in cap and gown are lined up before a wood-paneled wall smiling radiantly. Inside, they have written thank-yous.

“Thanks for giving a brother some real game, something I’ll be able to use when I get out,” one wrote.

“May you know the joy and freedom that you have bestowed upon us,” wrote another.

We settle into chairs opposite each other, with the conference table between us. Towers of cards and envelopes cover its surface. California budgeted $10 billion for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2011, but none of that money goes to PUP; they don’t receive any federal funds either. The individual donors that will receive these cards in a few days are the group’s bread and butter. I join for the next several hours in the monotonous task of slipping cards into envelopes, creating a white noise like leaves blowing back and forth across a window.

Lewen is 48, wears her hair short and speaks quickly, making her points with her hands as much as with words. She strikes me as a thoughtful, energetic academic, who has adapted to survive in a very non-academic world. College instructor for convicted felons is a rare job title, and nothing in Lewen’s upbringing hinted that she would run an organization like PUP.

Raised on the upper west side of Manhattan, she spent her teenage years as “little Miss clueless private school girl,” she tells me. After high school she went to Wesleyan, a small liberal arts college in Connecticut, and then left for Germany, where she earned a Masters in comparative literature and philosophy. UC Berkeley drew her to the Bay Area, and in 2002 she completed a Ph.D. in Rhetoric. Her dissertation was on “the role of imagery in feelings, particularly images of matter and space in feeling,” she says. “Very esoteric and abstract.”

In 1999, Lewen was at a psychoanalysis conference in Lake Arrowhead, California, where she overheard a dinner conversation about teaching prisoners at San Quentin. The next semester, she was co-teaching a communications class.

The year after Lewen started volunteering, the college’s volunteer coordinator (PUP had not been founded yet) gave his two weeks notice. Lewen, still working on her dissertation, was the only person willing to take over a program that was more an idea than an organization. It was just “me in my pajamas at home,” she says of the group’s administrative infrastructure at the time. Since Lewen took over, the group has raised enough money to afford the office we’re sitting in, and 10 paid staff.

When we first spoke, Lewen encouraged me to fly to California and observe some of PUP’s classes. San Quentin would be happy to have me, she said. I accepted because prisons are famously reluctant to allow journalists in, and because PUP is an exemplar of the current state of prison-based college education, the history of which can be divided into two eras: before and after 1994. The first period was typified by federal funding and broad access, and the second by private or state funding and diminished access.

In 1994 the “War on Drugs” was 25 years old, and responsible for a million incarcerations a year. American jails and prisons held about 1.5 million people, more than triple the population before that “War” began. And the Senate passed an omnibus crime bill that, among other things, banned prisoners from receiving the federal Pell grants generally available to low and moderate income students. In a political environment in which William Weld was elected Governor of Massachusetts after promising to deemphasize rehabilitation and reintroduce his state’s prisoners “to the joys of busting rocks,” the Senate’s move made sense. A New York Times editorial criticizing some of the bill’s provisions as “tough and dumb” did not even mention the discontinuation of Pell grants.

The college program at San Quentin is an extension site of Patten University, a small college in Oakland. In 1994 Patten was teaching classes inside the Deuel Vocational Institution, a state prison in Tracy, California, and recruiting new professors so they could expand into San Quentin. Without Pell grants Patten couldn’t afford either program. Classes at Deuel were discontinued, and the program at San Quentin only got off the ground because an instructor offered to teach for free and to enlist other professors to do the same.

Most prison college programs weren’t lucky enough to have a ready pool of qualified volunteers. Three years after Pell grants were cut, a study by the American Correctional Association found that 21 states were offering post-secondary education to prisoners, down from 37 in 1994. The programs that remained were teaching less than two percent of the prison population nationwide. “All around the state and country, programs were crashing and burning,” Lewen says. “This program got started in the wake of that.”

With the 1994 omnibus crime bill, the Senate was trying to get tough on crime, but they did something more akin to getting tough on criminals. In their desire to punish prisoners they cut funding to a type of program that had been shown to reduce crime.

Repeated studies have shown that receiving an education in prison reduces the chances a person will commit a new crime when he or she is released. (Recidivism refers to the relapse of released prisoners to criminal behavior.) In 2005, the Institute for Higher Education Policy published a paper entitled “Learning to Reduce Recidivism.” The institute found that of 15 studies on education and recidivism conducted during the nineties, 14 concluded that participation in higher education while incarcerated reduced the chance a person would re-offend. Access to any kind of education improves a person’s chances of reintegration into society. But access to college, rather than vocational education, makes the greatest difference. One study cited in the paper tracked 1,000 Ohio prisoners after their release and found that “while earning a GED or completing a vocational program did reduce recidivism, completing an associate’s degree had a particularly significant impact, reducing the likelihood of re-incarceration by 62 percent.”

The voting public in the years since 1994 has hardly warmed to the plight of the incarcerated, but the sheer weight of their numbers has forced some changes. In 2010 more than 1.5 million people were held in state and federal prisons, and about 750,000 in city or county jails — the largest number of prisoners in the world as a total figure and as a percentage of the population. If America’s prisoners were given their own city, it would be the fourth biggest in the country: larger than Houston, just smaller than Chicago.

Locking up that many people cost almost $70 billion in 2006 alone. States shoulder the majority of that burden ($52 billion a year), and a few have resuscitated prison-based education in the hopes that it will save money in the long run by helping prisoners reintegrate into society, once they are released.

By the time “Learning to Reduce Recidivism” was published in 2005, prison education programs had rebounded and returned to pre-1994 levels, but, the paper says, “the types of programs available to prisoners has shifted, with the majority of those enrolled in post-secondary programs now taking vocational, rather than purely academic, courses.” They found that only three percent of prisoners were enrolled in academic programs that could lead to bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Which means that though education has reestablished itself in the country’s prisons, Lewen’s program is still outside the mainstream, a fact she is surprisingly comfortable with.

The research on prison-based college education, and the advocacy arguments that grow from that research, focus on graduation rates, dollars saved by tax payers, lowered recidivism and increased public safety. Studies published on the subject tend to contain statements like this one from a 1997 article published in the Journal of Correctional Education: “This study suggests that the correctional enterprise do whatever necessary to keep the public safe from recurring criminal behavior. One of the most cost-effective models to accomplish this objective is to expeditiously and efficiently assume the responsibility of educating criminals.”

The terms of debate, Lewen says, are dictated by political salience. She derides them all as variations on “how can we make it easier on us when they get out.” While she agrees that recidivism, public safety, and cost are important, “there’s a universe beyond those issues,” she says. It’s well past the end of the normal workday, but we are still stuffing cards into envelopes while Lewen explains that being outside the mainstream has benefits. Because they receive no government money, the group is free to evaluate their output, and design their program, in any way they see fit.

All the evidence Lewen has to date is anecdotal, but she believes that the greatest impact the program has on its students comes when they complete their first, remedial, non-credit class. Former students are not staying free of the criminal justice system just because the education they received resulted in a well-paying job, but because when prisoners become students, they gain self-esteem and redefine themselves. She expects to find that completing even a few classes helps prevent drug and alcohol relapse, strengthens family ties, and improves mental health and social skills. If PUP only concerned itself with graduation rates, post-release employment, and cost savings to tax payers, they might miss the aspects of their mission that have the greatest effect, Lewen tells me.

Lewen is right to believe that the way she thinks about educating prisoners is outside the mainstream. It is hard to find articles that support the idea that effort and money should be expended on prisoners for the sake of educating them — bettering them — not just for the sake of cost or efficacy. When Lewen talks about her work, she sounds as if she believes in it almost as a religion. To find an echo of her sentiments, I had to dig into a text from an earlier era.

In 1927, Austin MacCormick, then assistant director of the US Bureau of Prisons, was sent out to assess the capacity of existing educational programs. He toured the country, visiting nearly every prison. In “The Education of Adult Prisoners,” the book he completed after his trip, he wrote, “Of all the fields in which the American penal system gives evidence of futility, education very nearly heads the list.” McCormick advocated a huge investment in educational spending on prisoners, not because it was cost effective, but because, “If we believe in the beneficial effect of education on man in general we must believe in it for this particular group, which differs less than the layman thinks from the ordinary run of humanity.”


Three hours ago, when I left San Francisco, the sky was clear. A perfect day for a motorcycle ride. As I cut across town, everything was as it should be, but at the apex of the Golden Gate Bridge I could see a bank of clouds looming to the north. A few miles further, as San Quentin Prison disappeared from the side mirror, rain coated the visor of my helmet and traffic slowed to a crawl.

Riding a motorcycle in the rain is like taking a cold shower with your clothes on. I was traveling to meet a man named Rick Branson in a Denny’s just off highway 101 in Ukiah, California, a small town 120 miles north of San Francisco. By the time I arrived, my lips were blue. My hand was clammy when I extended it in greeting.

We are waiting for a table, and Branson is giving me a look of grandfatherly concern. I can tell he’s restraining himself from asking, again, if I’m OK. When we are finally seated in a booth by the front door, I clutch a warm coffee cup with numb hands.

Branson looks like a drill sergeant who has run out of malice. He has a thin mustache and a shaved head covered by a black baseball cap. A well-worn Oakland Raiders sweatshirt is tucked into his jeans, and his thick hands rest on the table. He grew up in Willits, a town even smaller than Ukiah, about twenty miles north whose motto is “Heart of Mendocino County.” He is at ease in this place. He banters with the waitress, and says hello to several groups as they pass our table. He smiles often, with his whole face, and speaks in long, well composed sentences. While he talks about life before he became a student at PUP, I try to square what he’s saying with what I’m seeing. It is hard to do because the man he is describing bears no resemblance to the one sitting across from me, so concerned about whether I am cold or uncomfortable.

Before beginning his education at PUP, Branson says, “All I wanted to do was get drunk, fight the cops, and do whatever the hell I wanted to do, and screw everybody else.

“I grew up in a little bitty hick town, a redneck town. All I learned was how to grow pot, how to fight, how to drink beer and be a red neck and how to hate other races. I was ignorant. I wasn’t purposely ignorant; I didn’t know I wasn’t educated properly.”

Branson was released from San Quentin eight months before. He says he doesn’t drink or use drugs now, and works full time as a mechanic and assistant manager for an equipment rental company. Since his release he’s only missed one day of work, a planned absence to walk his daughter down the aisle in a rented tuxedo, and dance with her at her wedding reception. After the ceremony, he sent pictures to PUP with a note that read, “See what I get to do now.”

Eight months is the longest Branson has been out of custody since he was 16. Most of his life has been wasted spinning through the revolving doors of local jails and state prisons. In Branson I found all the nonacademic effects of receiving an education that Lewen talked about. Being a student gave him something positive to talk to his family about while he was incarcerated, which helped him rebuild his relationships with them. And it allowed him to redefine himself and raised his self esteem. It has kept him sober and made him a better man, even a better mechanic, he tells me.

I ask if he fears he’ll ever be locked up again.

“No, I’m not going back.”

Branson’s last prison sentence, for driving under the influence, was five years and eight months. It was the longest stretch he ever faced, and the news came on the heels of other bad tidings. His 18-month-old niece had just died in a car accident, and the woman he was involved with left him because he was back in jail. He had a break-down. While awaiting trial the local jail held him in a padded room. When he got to San Quentin “I didn’t really care whether I lived or died,” he says.

School was never a priority for Branson. High school just passed by. He went to community college in the early nineties, but never took it seriously. He was drinking every day, and spent his time at school snorting cocaine in the bathroom with other malcontents. And so it’s a little surprising that he decided to begin attending classes when he got to San Quentin. In terms of educational ambition, he was far from the cream of the crop. But when he saw a flier advertising free college courses, he decided to give them a try. It was just something to do, he says.

To take classes with PUP a prisoner needs a high school degree or the equivalent, but most students begin in remedial classes, because the actual educational level of someone with a high school diploma or equivalency is often below what PUP’s classes require. When the program was founded, prospective students were given a placement exam, but the vast majority ended up in remedial classes and performing poorly on the test gave them an initial feeling of failure. Now, non-credit classes are the default for every new student, including Branson.

Former prisoners from three states told me that the hardest thing about beginning college in prison is letting your guard down and admitting you have things to learn. “You’re not supposed to have a flaw in prison,” Arthur Bembury told me. Bembury spent 20 years in the Massachusetts prison system, and saw a lot of men avoid the college program there because they couldn’t admit they needed help. “A guy might weigh two or three hundred pounds from lifting weights, but if he can’t spell ‘idiosyncrasy’ […] that’s gonna come out,” he said.

For that reason Branson was silent for his first two weeks in class. He felt lost and didn’t want to ask for assistance. During his fourth math class he asked a teacher for help with factors. By the end of that class Branson understood the material. For the first time in years he entertained the idea that he might be smart — that he might not be destined for the life he was living. That possibility was all he needed to redefine himself.

“The second week, I knew things were changing,” he says. “My self-esteem was through the roof, ’cause I was in college. I wasn’t a prisoner no more. I was a college student. I was in prison, but I was a college student. There’s prestige in that,” he says.

From that point on Branson was a true believer, not in degrees or resume lines, but in education as a transformative process. In addition to working in the prison metal shop, Branson took a full load of courses every semester. He completed 18 classes before being paroled, including geometry, ethics, chemistry and philosophy. Other than in an algebra class, Branson received all A’s and B’s. His free time was spent trying to recruit new students. He sought out “young guys, hanging out, tattooing each other” he says, and preached his new evangel: learn something, it could save your life.

Getting an education to change who you are, and to improve your character and self-esteem sounds quaint, romantic. It doesn’t sound efficient. But when education was first granted to prisoners, that was the goal. In 1790, Quakers founded the Walnut Street Prison, the country’s first penitentiary, in Philadelphia. The common thinking at the time was that criminality was hereditary, characterological — once a criminal, always a criminal. But the Quakers had other ideas. They thought that incarceration should provide prisoners a chance for self-improvement through penitence. Education was part of their project, it was encouraged not as a means of improving a prisoner’s employability, but to improve the prisoner as a human being. An early review of the program declared that anyone who visited a prison class would be convinced of “the zeal and inclination manifested by almost all the prisoners to acquire knowledge and become perfect.”

An argument can be made that the education Branson received from PUP did him no good. He has the same job he had when sentenced, guaranteed to him for life by an employer whose business Branson helped build in between jail stays. Branson lives in a trailer parked on the work site. Unlike Hutton and Shaw, whose lives are now defined by their attachment to colleges and their academic goals, education informs who Branson is more than what he does. Although he is only one class short of the requirement for an associate degree, he has only vague plans for completing it. When I question whether PUP really did anything for him he says that committing to education was never about the degree, or getting a better job. It was about changing the way he understands the world, and changing himself.

“I didn’t go in there and say, ‘I want this degree so I can get a good job and be rich.’ That wasn’t my thinking at all. I just didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to kill myself. I didn’t want to feel as miserable and lousy as I did,” he says.

Over coffee at Denny’s, Branson drops into our conversation a reference to Occam’s razor, and tells me that he measures people by a different yard-stick than he used to. “You can tell how intelligent a person is by their vocabulary,” he says. Then, with a smile, he asks if I know what the word ‘tertiary’ means. “It means the third stage of something,” he answers his own question. “I use it as often as I can.” He says the most important class he took in San Quentin was philosophy, because it taught him how to evaluate his decisions.

“I had this whole belief system, cause that was how I was raised,” he says. “So now I have to question my entire belief system. I have to question everything. And before I go out and act — or react to anything — I have to stop and ask myself, ‘Is this the right thing or the wrong thing?’ How do I know?

“It made me think more deeply about what I’m doing, where I’m going, how it affects people around me. That one class gave me that much,” he says.

Branson was already a mechanic when he went to prison. His problem was never a lack of skills or a poor work ethic. His problem was a lack of self-respect, not knowing he was intelligent and believing that the way he was living his life was the way lives are lived.

“I was on a one-track crash course,” he says. “I just kept crashing over and over and over.” What PUP did for him was let him know, “There’s other options, there’s other trains, there’s other tracks.”


One day, in the late eighties, Arthur Bembury was playing basketball inside a Massachusetts state prison. Dribbling the ball down the court, he saw a large stone obstructing his path. He called for a time out, and bent to move it so the game could continue. A friend stopped him. They were going to have to play around the stone, his friend said. Just then a large man watching the game from courtside rose and asked Bembury if there was a problem. That stone, the man announced, was his stone and it was to remain where he had placed it. If Bembury didn’t like that arrangement then they were going to have to fight. Bembury demurred. The game continued. The players on the court dribbled, passed, and drove to the basket, avoiding the stone as if it were a land mine.

Later, Bembury learned that the man who threatened him wanted to be transferred to another prison. In order to be moved he would need to get in trouble. The easiest way to do that was to pick a fight. Fighting would result in a disciplinary ticket (referred to as D-Tickets), which would likely get him reclassified and sent to the facility he had in mind. The man didn’t want to hit a friend, so he placed his stone on the basketball court, where it was most likely to elicit a violent response from a stranger.

Bembury, who is in his early sixties, told me that story on a mid-January afternoon we spent together in Newton, Massachusetts. Bembury is a squarely-built man who speaks with a sweet, raspy voice, like gravel and molasses. We met inside the offices of Partakers, a small religious organization that sends academic tutors into Massachusetts prisons, where they visit with students enrolled in the Boston University Prison Education Program.

Bembury was paroled about seven years ago, and went to work for a cannery in Vermont, where he earned $7.00 an hour on the night shift. A year after his release, Partakers offered him a job as their outreach coordinator. He was reluctant to accept, he says, because, “You don’t always want to go through life and be introduced as the ex-felon.” But, it was a respectable job with a decent salary. With his criminal record only a Google search away, Bembury knew there would not be many such offers.

Partakers’ office is spare, just desks and chairs. On the wall next to me a pair of antebellum shackles hang near a Keith Haring poster. It’s a wintry day, and Bembury and I are alone.

Bembury prefers not to talk about his time in prison. Most of his ideas and ruminations are prospective, not retrospective. He wants Partakers to expand and develop new programs. He is saving for retirement, and when he has some capital, he plans to invest in real estate. When he wants to emphasize a point he’s making, he leans in toward the audio recorder and speaks close to the microphone. When I play it back it booms, though he never raised his voice.

Most of the men I interviewed for this article told their stories smoothly, with practiced panache. They expressed remorse, but it was infused with swagger. Bembury’s tale has no narrative. I get it in scenes, with lessons appended.

The basketball story took place during Bembury’s second incarceration, which began in 1988 and ended in 2005. The point of the story, he told me, was that in prison the man who placed the stone on the basketball court was acting rationally — and that any place where a plan like that could be rational, is potentially crazy-making. The key to staying sane — and being successful once you are released — is to make sure you never submit to that sort of logic, he told me.

When Bembury returned to prison in 1988 the culture of the place jarred him. Unlike Branson or Hutton or Shaw, Bembury did not spend his life cycling through correctional facilities. He was ill equipped to negotiate the world he found himself in. Though he has been incarcerated twice, Bembury has only been convicted of a single crime, second degree murder, when he was 18 years old.

He entered prison in 1972, and escaped three years later. He traveled west, settled in Los Angeles, and began a new life under the pseudonym “Franklin Douglas Hanare.” He had a family, sold real estate, even had a bit part in the 1988 film “Colors.”

One day, 14 years after he escaped, police knocked on the door of Bembury’s real estate office in Marina Del Ray, California, and told him they were taking him into custody at the request of the state of Massachusetts. Someone back home had ‘dropped a dime on him’, and he had a life sentence to complete.

Back in prison, the men around Bembury bragged that they were: best pimp, best robber, best drug dealer. For Bembury, it all rang hollow. That sort of braggadocio always made him think, “But you aren’t that good, ’cause you’re in here with me,” he says and laughs a deep laugh.

When Bembury learned that Boston University (BU) operated a college program inside the prison, he enrolled. In some ways, it was a strange move. He had earned a degree from West Los Angeles College while he was on the run, so he didn’t need an education. He wasn’t looking for enlightenment, or self-esteem, or new life goals. He was trying to find a space inside the prison where normal measures of success remained: where being best student was still more appealing than being best pimp, and the logic of stones on basketball courts didn’t prevail. Academia was not a religion for him the way it was for Branson, it was a redoubt to which he retreated to preserve his sanity.

In prison, BU’s students were a “community within a community” Bembury says. They socialized together, tutored each other and edited each other’s papers. Collectively, they held each other to different standards than the other prisoners. Any behavior that might result in a missed class was frowned upon. Fighting was discouraged, so were drugs, weapons or any other contraband. “It’s clear who is in the program,” Bembury says.

BU was also a lifeline to the civilian world. One of the most valuable things about being in college while in prison, Bembury says, was, “Just being in contact with people that are out there, and have a grip on life.” The professors that BU sends into the prison are university instructors, not prison employees. And during visiting hours, most BU students meet with teams of academic tutors sent by Partakers. The prisoner-tutor groups talk about school work, but also family life, politics and current events.

Partakers’ volunteers are recruited primarily through churches. They tend to be older and middle class, mostly professionals or retirees. They are the only visitors some students receive, Lanny Kutakoff, Partakers’ director, told me. Through their meeting with volunteers, the prisoners, “get to be much more comfortable with people very unlike themselves, which, I think, gives them a real step forward when they go out and try to get jobs,” he said.

When Bembury was finally paroled, he had some trouble adjusting. He would become tense and hyper-vigilant if someone bumped into him in the supermarket. It took a little while, but he relearned that, outside prison, failing to apologize for such a small thing was not a great insult. But he had no real problems. He found work right away, and never violated the terms of his parole. If you consider that he spent years in classrooms interacting with professors and students, and talking with professionals and retirees who spent their free time driving to visit him, his successful reentry is no great surprise.

Chatting with me in Partakers’ office, sipping tea and talking about his retirement plans, Bembury reminds me of a former prisoner-student I met in California. A man who also used college as a way to escape prison without leaving it, and who spoke about his experience as if he had led two separate lives.

I met Chuck Hopple in a hotel in San Jose, California. He had been living in the same room since leaving San Quentin, nine months earlier, and it was aseptically clean. His bed was made, his counters were clean, his brushed steel stove was spotless. I sat on his couch for our interview, and he leaned back into an arm chair. On the coffee table in front of me, a copy of Mother Jones lay on top of the most recent Harper’s.

Close your eyes, think ‘ex-convict.’ You will not conjure an image of Chuck Hopple. He is nearing retirement age, has a soft face and a neatly trimmed gray beard. On the afternoon we met he was wearing a loose fitting sweater that outlined a slight belly. Try as I might, I could not imagine him striding through a prison yard in a drab uniform. He looked like an erudite, cosmopolitan Santa Claus.

Like Bembury, Hopple was only sentenced to prison once. He was 50 when he was convicted of first degree burglary, and entered San Quentin a stranger to an environment he did not want to adapt to. Prison was like being trapped in, “a desert […] there’s nothing there,” he told me.

Eight months after he arrived, Hopple started attending the PUP. The environment in class was like nothing else in San Quentin, he said. The difference was “night and day.”

Outside PUP’s trailers, there were only men, there was no one to talk to. Nothing was “of any value,” he said. All the conversations were “bullshit.” Inside, classes were “incredibly fun,” and he could interact with women. (“There’s something about women instructors where people always think of love.”) Racial distinctions, enforced through threat of violence in the rest of the prison, fell apart in class. He could talk to, debate, or collaborate with men of any race.

Hopple told me his favorite class text was Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, a seafaring tale about a group of slaves who take control of a Spanish merchant ship. He loved the writing, he said. (“In one language, and as with one voice, all poured out a common tale of suffering; in which the Negresses, of whom there were not a few, exceeded the others in their dolorous vehemence.”) He lost himself in the story. “I had a lot of fun with that one,” he said.

Hopple spoke about his prison experience and his college experience as if they were separate, not concurrent. When he talked about the guards, or his trial, or the prison yard, he used the past tense. But when he remembered the classroom, he kept slipping into the present tense. As if he was still attending. At points, while reminiscing about PUP, he was almost giddy.

I experienced some confusion trying to reconcile the fact that memories of his time in prison were cheering Hopple. Then I realized, he wasn’t remembering prison. He was thinking about a place where black, white and Hispanic men talked about literature and were at ease with each other. Where professors paid attention to what he had to say. Like Bembury, that’s why he was there. He was remembering a space apart from San Quentin, though it was contained within it.

Without PUP, Hopple said, “Seven years might seem like fourteen.”

“There are so many essays that I wrote, and rewrote and rewrote into the early morning hours when everybody was sleeping. That gave me the ability to remove myself. Even though I was in general population, I was quite removed.”


Auburn, NY, is a city of twenty-eight thousand, just 30 miles south of Lake Ontario. Auburn Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison with a population of about eighteen hundred, set right in the middle of the city. It is long and thin. A stream courses along the south wall. The north wall is taller and thicker than the one that partitioned Berlin. Modest homes face that blank defense; from their yards you could toss a stone and hit it.

I arrive in the city of Auburn an hour before the fiction class I am supposed to observe begins inside the prison. Nervous, I remember something Jody Lewen told me about the first time she entered San Quentin. “I felt like I was jumping off a cliff,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to die now.’” And I wonder, illogically, “What if they don’t let me leave?”

The front entrance of Auburn prison is flanked by short towers of cut stone. The main building is generic and institutional. As if someone started building a castle, and then decided they’d prefer a high school gymnasium. A copper statue of a Revolutionary Soldier with a bayoneted rifle slung over his left shoulder stands atop the building.

You can stroll into Auburn’s visitors entrance from the sidewalk. If you want to get past security, face the window to your left and slip your ID to the man in the glass walled office so he can inspect it. If your name is on the correct list you can enter the prison; if it’s not, you’re out of luck. Mine is not, though I had been assured that my visit was approved by an administrator. Somehow, I was lost in the ether. “It’s not your fault, it’s no one’s fault, it just happens,” the apologetic, harried guard standing by the metal detector says.

Prisons have no obligation to give journalists access to their facilities. Legitimate security concerns, bureaucratic inertia, and lack of motivation all play a role in keeping the press and the public at bay. The week I flew to California to observe classes at PUP, San Quentin was placed on lockdown. It remained sealed for 12 days. No volunteers were allowed in, no classes were conducted. It was mid-December, and the delay lasted so long the semester had to be continued after PUP’s instructors returned from their holiday vacations. These delays, Lewen told me, “are part of the story.” Instructors, guest lecturers and volunteers, all have to deal with the same bureaucracy that I had to muck through. (The same bureaucracy, true, but it seems to treat journalists with more skepticism than volunteer professors.) Students must contend with a learning environment subject to frequent, unpredictable disruptions. I left California having driven past San Quentin’s fog-kissed 160-year-old-walls a half dozen times. I never got inside.

Back on the East Coast, Jim Schechter, who runs the Cornell Prison Education Program, offered to sponsor me so I could observe one of the classes his program teaches in Auburn prison. There began an odyssey that can only be described as Kafkaesque. My application to enter the prison was lost and lost again, approved and then lost again. A trip was planned and then canceled at the last moment.

After three months of abortive attempts, I drove six hours north from New York City. Now, I’ve been turned away, and there’s nothing to do but pace outside the prison, and wonder if I will ever get inside.

The following morning, Jim Schechter starts calling the prison’s administrative staff before they even arrive for work. Finally, I am allowed past the security post to observe what I have been reporting on for months, so that I can verify what I have been hearing about teaching inside prisons.

Instructors say that teaching college courses in a prison now is like teaching in a university during the 1970s. There is no technology. Prisoners rarely have access to computers and when they do they cannot access the Internet. Class assignments are mostly handwritten, and researched in a library, by looking through books. Spelling is checked with a dictionary. Despite those limitations, several instructors told me the assignments they receive from their students are often without a mark or a smudge. They have been written and rewritten until they are flawless.

Because prison classes suffer frequent disruptions, in San Quentin, PUP builds an extra three weeks into every semester, anticipating that the facility will be locked down and classes canceled. Fighting, escape attempts, the flu, even fog can result in a lockdown. Occasionally, students in prison college programs don’t make it to class, not because they are ditching, but because guards don’t feel like escorting them to the classroom. If the census of one wing of the prison is off, everyone is held in their cell until the count is sorted out.

Lanny Kutakoff, the director of Partakers, has been teaching in prison on and off since 1975. After his first prison class he was, “smitten.” He told me, “I wanted to be there, I wanted to teach, they were hungry.”

The adjectives most often invoked by instructors to describe their students were hungry, eager, and polite. Timothy Doran, who teaches in San Quentin and UC Berkeley, where he’s a graduate student, said his incarcerated students are more attentive. “In some ways they’re better students, because they’re more motivated and work harder,” he said. And, they “know it’s a privilege and they act very politely.”

Several professors mentioned that their incarcerated students are textualists. They read documents closely, sometimes missing sarcasm or satire. Keramet Reiter, who has taught in jails and prisons in three states for more than 10 years, said her students are, “incredibly literal, which I think is a function of having your every move dictated.”

But overall, professors say, classes in prison are just classes. And the students, one said, “are just regular adult college students.” I was skeptical. The experiences described by former students (revelation, sanctuary, redemption) were too far beyond what a normal class has to offer. But I was not able to confirm or deny any such observations until Auburn finally gave me permission to enter the prison this morning.

Veronica Morales and Stephanie Kelly, two of Cornell’s volunteer chemistry instructors, and I doff our shoes and coats, pass through a metal detector, and enter the prison. A gate slides closed behind us, another opens in front. A fireplug-shaped guard with a shaved head guides us. He lopes. Together, the four of us navigate a labyrinth of corridors, yards, observation booths, fences. We shuttle through halls whose corners are rounded by dozens of layers of paint. This place looks like a dirty hospital.

Our escort hollers “got three” at every gate, checkpoint and fence, and holds up the same number of fingers. I cannot say how many times he does this because I had to agree not to write anything down before I was allowed inside the prison and there are too many checkpoints to remember. We walk the distance of at least two football fields before we arrive at a long building that looks like a barn. We climb a set of stairs, and enter a hallway with classrooms on either side. Each has a wall that is Plexiglas from the waist up. From the hall you can see everything happening inside them. In the center of the building three guards hover near a desk. They direct us into the room nearest them. A couple dozen students file in after us from an adjacent room, where they were held for our arrival. Most pass by the front desk, shoot the teachers a quick smile, and ask about their week.

“You should introduce yourself,” Morales says. “So they don’t think you’re a guard.” Once everyone is seated I tell the room that I am writing about college education in prison, and that I’m grateful to them for letting me sit in on their class. In order to get into the prison I had to agree not to ask the class questions, quote students directly, or describe them in detail. “I’ll just be sitting in the back,” I say.

The room looks like a grade school classroom, just desks and chairs. Nothing fancy. Hand written signs reading “No spitting or yelling” hang from every window that opens out. Guards are in the hall, but they are out of sight. It is easy to imagine this room is not inside a prison at all. Morales and Kelly return quizzes the class took recently.

“These really sucked, guys” Morales tells the room. Some students groan, others laugh. Someone demands a pep talk.

“You guys are doing great, but these quizzes sucked,” she offers.

This is a room of questions. The plan was to review the material covered by the quiz, but that only happens in fits and starts. Kelly darts from desk to desk as arms raise. Here and there men cluster together. Every bit of chatter I can discern is about the class material. When no one can tell Morales how many ways a molecule can move, she makes the class stand and act out the possibilities. The men oblige, theatrically. Jumping, and weaving from side to side, their arms flopping limply. They smile. A few glance at the hallway to see if any other inmates can see them dancing around.

A TV is rolled into the room and a video about crystal growth, narrated by an old man with a droll voice, comes on. Someone sitting in a group of four just in front of me leans back in his chair and asks under his breath whether I understood the lesson.

“Not a clue,” I say.

The group waves me over and we talk in hushed tones while the video plays. I remind them I am not supposed to ask questions, but this is not a problem. They are not interested in answering any. They want to tell me how much going to college has helped them. They say I should write about the theater group they have just started. And complain about the current state of the law. It’s hard to win an appeal these days, they say. Then there are things they want to know. What do I think about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? What does the Golden Gate Bridge look like? Is the newspaper industry really doing as poorly as they have heard? Where am I from? Do I have any advice for them when they are released?

“Do what your parole officer tells you to do,” I say. “Even if you know they’re wrong.”

“What can I say about college education in prison?” one asks.

“I doubt I have anything to tell you,” I say. “You know better than I do.”

No, he shakes his head. It’s hard to understand something when you’re involved yourself, he tells me.

A trim man with soft eyes, sitting just to my left, wants to know how I will write about prison college programs, and this class. We talk about how to contextualize the subject, what information is most important to include, how to present characters both sympathetically and realistically. And this man — who is serving a sentence of 25 years to life — smiles up at me and says that writing sounds very difficult.

I have his sympathy, he says.

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