Prisoners’ Progress

By Joy Lazendorfer | October 31, 2007

San Quentin’s Prison University Project helps inmates learn to read and write, secure an AA degree and gain new self-respect.

In 1996, when a jury convicted Jay Ly for manslaughter related to road rage, the judge ordered him to pay $3,500 for the funeral of the person he had killed. For a moment, Ly was shocked. “And I thought, ‘Oh, shoot—funeral,’” he says. “It had never occurred to me that there was a funeral.”

It wasn’t that Ly, then an 18-year-old Asian gangbanger from Southern California, didn’t know that he had killed someone. It was just that he had never thought about the consequences of his crime all the way through until that moment in the courtroom. He had never before considered the funeral and the grieving families and the loss that were caused by his actions. “Those thoughts had never been mentioned to me, and I never would have learned them if the judge hadn’t said that,” he says now.

It wasn’t until toward the end of Ly’s 10-year sentence, half of which was spent in Marin County’s San Quentin State Prison, that he continued the spark of deeper thinking he had started that day in the courtroom. He began taking classes at the Prison University Project at San Quentin.

Prior to the classes, even after five years of prison, Ly describes himself as being a bit of a hothead. When he first got to San Quentin in 2001, he almost started a riot against white inmates, but another prisoner stopped it at the last minute. Then he started hearing about the university, where inmates could take classes in everything from math to Spanish to philosophy.

“A couple of guys, Eddie and another guy, Mike, had all these books and were doing speeches and stuff, and they would come to my cell and say, ‘Hey, man,’ and would talk to me,” he recalls. “They were always talking about school and stuff and I was like, ‘Yeah cool, whatever,’ you know. But then the spring semester came and I took some courses.”

Over time, the classes began to work their way into Ly’s spirit. In his ethics class, reading Plato and Locke and other philosophers, he started looking at the world in new ways. He began to think critically, to reason, to question. And like that moment in the courtroom, he began to feel empathy for the world around him. “I would be in class and go, ‘Oh shoot, I never thought of it that way before,’” he says. “I was even a vegetarian for a while because I felt so bad for eating meat because of that class.”

San Quentin’s Prison University Project is the only onsite university for inmates in California. About 200 men take about two classes a semester toward their AA degrees. Since the university was founded in 1996, 68 students have earned AA’s at San Quentin, and many more have transferred and gone on to complete their studies after being paroled. The school is an extension of Patten University, a nondenominational Christian college based in Oakland.

Despite struggling at times, the Prison University Project gains momentum and prestige every year. It is also controversial. At a time when the cost of a four-year college education in California is approaching $100,000, many people are against providing free higher education to inmates.

“If you are a working-class family and you are law-abiding and struggling to put your kids through school, you may think, ‘Why should someone be able to commit a crime and then go to prison and get a college education?’” says Terry Thornton, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). “People are supportive of education, but the taxpayers are not going to want to pay for prisoners to get a college degree while in prison.”

Building a School

Today, San Quentin’s university is completely privately funded. It didn’t start out that way. Originally, the university was supposed to be government-funded. Then, in 1994, Congress barred prisoners from receiving Federal Pell Grants, which in turn eliminated funding to higher education in prisons and forced some 350 programs to shut down. San Quentin would have done the same if it weren’t for one person: Jody Lewen.

In 1998, Lewen, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, went to a conference on psychoanalysis and happened to sit by someone who worked in San Quentin’s university program. Soon after, Lewen decided to volunteer to teach literature and composition to the inmates. Although she liked the university, Lewen could see how it could be so much better than it was, so she took an active role. She began e-mailing and contacting people in charge for more resources and bringing up her thoughts on the project to anyone who would listen.

Then the project’s executive director announced that he was leaving for another job in two weeks. People began saying the university would close down. They also started looking to Lewen for answers. “And I thought, ‘I’ll kill myself if I just stand here and watch this happen,’ you know,” says Lewen. “So I ended up saying, ‘This is really, really important to a lot of people, and I have to stabilize it somehow.’”

After she took over as executive director, Lewen found that she loved her new job. It was challenging, sure, but also satisfying. The inmates were so grateful and loved the classes so much, and it allowed Lewen a chance to teach and work in social justice at the same time.

“I was always a little uncomfortable teaching kids at Berkeley, because no matter what, I knew those people were going to be OK,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Oh, my God, here’s a way I can be in an academic setting and still help more marginal and needy people.’”

To generate funding, Lewen formed a nonprofit to support the university. Today, it is funded through donations from individuals, private foundations and corporations. Publishers donate textbooks. The classes are taught by approximately 60 volunteer teachers, most of whom are graduate students or instructors from Sonoma State University, UC Berkeley, SFSU and other Bay Area universities.

Freeing Minds

Running an accredited university within a prison system is a difficult challenge, to say the least. Much of Lewen’s time is divided between two things: getting funding and appealing to prison officials.

Since 2001, for example, Lewen has been trying to get officials to give her more classroom space. The university needs a minimum of eight classrooms five nights a week, but currently only has an average of three classrooms a night. Now, thanks to some pressure from members of the state Legislature, Lewen is seeing signs that her request may be granted. The Prison Industry Authority is building modular buildings, and one may be put aside for the university.

Although this is a positive development, six years is a long time to wait for such a basic resource. “Someone said to me, ‘Wow you’re running an entire college for us for free and all you’re asking for is some place to put it, and we can’t even do that,’” says Lewen. “‘What’s wrong with us?’”

While San Quentin’s program is the only on-site university in the state, other college opportunities are popping up for prisoners elsewhere. The CDCR is working with California community colleges to create opportunities for prisoners to learn online and through correspondence courses. In June, 71 inmates earned AA degrees this way at Ironwood State Prison and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, making them the largest group of prisoners to graduate at one time with higher educational degrees in the United States.

Still, according to Thornton, there are no plans for taxpayers to pay for college education for prisoners. And we probably couldn’t afford to, anyway: the budget for the CDCR is $10 billion plus another $7.4 billion allocated to build 40,000 new prison beds. By comparison, the budget for higher education in California is around $15 billion. For the first time in the state’s history, Californians are paying more for prisons this year than they are for higher education.

On the other hand, studies suggest that spending money on educating prisoners may cost the taxpayer less in the long run. People who get an education in prison are far less likely to commit new crimes when they are released on parole, which means fewer repeat offenders. A 2001 study by the City University of New York found that prisoners who take college classes are four times more likely to behave themselves when they are released. It also found that college prison programs save taxpayers about $900,000 per 100 students every two years. It is more expensive to house a prisoner for a second and third time than to educate him once.

Prison education also lowers the toll that repeat criminals take on a community. “Ninety percent of people in prison today will be released back into the community,” says Owen Modeland, president of the Correctional Education Association, which serves educators and administrators who teach prisoners. “College education can mean that an ex-offender will get a job, pay taxes, support his family and stay out of trouble.”

Micro Macro

All inmates at the Prison University Project have to take college prep courses before they can start taking college-level classes, whether they have a high school diploma or GED or not. “I was naive about this when I went into the program,” says Lewen. “I thought, ‘Oh, a high school diploma. That means they should be able to write an essay, write a full sentence.’ No. A lot of students the schools are graduating can barely read or write.”

Half of California’s 173,000 prisoners read at a seventh-grade level and almost a quarter read below a third-grade level. Because of this, the college prep course in language skills starts with such basics as grammar and spelling. By the end of the semester, everyone has learned to write a five-paragraph essay.

The inmates are also required to take a college prep math course to get up to basic algebra. In some cases, this means reviewing decimals, fractions and multiplication tables. For other people, it means learning basic math for the first time.

“It is unbelievable,” says Lewen. “I had no idea going in what it was like. The story of what’s going on in California’s public school system is in the Prison University Project.”

Prisoners often couldn’t concentrate when they were in school because of other pressing issues like abuse, hunger, drug addiction, homelessness and gang activities. Additionally, a large portion of the prison population have undiagnosed learning disabilities, like ADD or dyslexia, making classroom time just that much more difficult. When they were ignored or chided by teachers for their disabilities, they may have acted out and slid into behavioral problems. Whatever the case, with most of them the educational system did not address their needs.

“In a way, prisoners are society’s failures,” says Department of Corrections spokesman Thornton. “When the average reading level is seventh grade, there have been a lot of failures. I’m not saying that that is the case with everyone; there are certainly people who deserve to be in jail. But a lot of people have been failed along the way.”

For these inmates, going back to school can bring back bad memories or unexpected emotions. It’s common for a prisoner to believe he is stupid and incapable of learning, and discovering this is not true can be upsetting. Some inmates will drop out of class when they start to do well, assuming it must not be a real class if they can get good grades.

Ly stayed in high school for the girls; if he had gone to an all-boys school, he jokes, he would have dropped out in the ninth grade. Yet he knew he was good at math. In 11th grade, he skated through calculus while barely paying attention, squeaking by with a C.

Still, Ly didn’t think of himself as intelligent until his prison classes. “I started realizing that I’m smart,” he says. “Not a super genius or anything, but I’m pretty quick. And I started thinking, ‘Hey, I could do something with my life.’”

This realization came slowly as Ly kept getting A’s. Then, for his intro to ethics class, he wrote a 30-page essay for his midterm, the longest thing he had ever written. When it was handed back, the teacher praised the essay in front of the class.

“She said, ‘This is the best paper in class,’” he remembers. “When I look back, it was nice. She said, ‘I don’t give out A-pluses very often.’ She had handed out only fours A-pluses in her whole career. I got an A-plus in that class because of that midterm.”

Life’s Random Pattern

Ly is one of many students who has been encouraged by the Prison University Project. When David Deutsch was sent to San Quentin for trafficking cocaine and marijuana in 2000, one of the first things he heard about from the other inmates was the university. “They absolutely loved that program,” he says. “There is no group of people more enthusiastic about learning than these prisoners.”

Deutsch, who got his bachelors from Humboldt State University in 1976, spent much of his time in prison tutoring other prisoners. Still, in his last year in San Quentin, he took some courses in Spanish. The class not only re-ignited his love of learning, he found that it distracted him from his situation in a way that almost nothing else did.

“When I would sit in Spanish class, I would forget I was in prison and just focus on Spanish,” says Deutsch, who was paroled in 2003 and is now pursuing a graduate degree in social work. “That may be another reason they love it so much. They completely forget about the fact that they are incarcerated. You temporarily forget where you are.”

Like most people, when Lewen first volunteered to teach at San Quentin, she was a little concerned about her safety. She was surprised to find that the prisoners were not threatening at all, but respectful and pleasant. In fact, in the program’s 11 years, there has never been a fight in a classroom and no teacher has ever been assaulted. By getting past the prison stereotype and getting to know the men as people, Lewen has started to see the potential the inmates once had—and, in many cases, still have.

“It’s almost like, as a society, we imagine people in prisons as a composite image of all the people who have ever committed a crime,” Lewen says. “Everyone imagines a psychopath. It’s just such a waste. Most of the people I see, if they had gone to my little private school in New York, they would have never been in prison. No way.”

For Ly, reentering society has been difficult after 10 years in jail, but he is still managing to get A’s in his five classes. While he finds the classes at SFSU are harder than the ones at the Prison University, the students are also less enthusiastic about learning.

“People here just sit in class, they don’t participate, they’re like, ‘Whatever, when are we going to be done?’” he says. “Half the class doesn’t show up. The class will have 60 students and only 30 will come.”

Ly can’t afford to be that apathetic. If he hadn’t gone to the Prison University, Ly thinks he would still be in jail now. Considering all it has given him, education is his top priority. “I know it’s work,” Ly says. “If I don’t have an education, with my background, things would be tough for me. That’s what education means to me.”

Attribution: This originally appeared on the Bohemian on October 31, 2007. Read Story

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