There is no system that more completely dismantles a person’s ability to be healthy than the prison system. The education that the Prison University Project provides is a step toward employment, living wages and stability — all of which contribute to better mental and physical health for those returning from prison.
Timothy Warren spent most of his teens and early adulthood in maximum security prisons. He described himself as closed off to other people and always on edge. When he entered San Quentin three years ago, the highest grade he had finished was eighth. But on June 24, 2016, he received his associate degree in liberal arts through the Prison University Project, a nonprofit that offers college courses at San Quentin. He was valedictorian of his class.
“I’m here to tell y’all today that I’m a bigger man because of the things I went through,” he said in his valedictory address. “And when I rise up out of here, shortly, I’m going to show you guys some of the things I’ve been working on.”
His prospects look good. An individual who leaves prison with an academic degree is much less likely to re-enter prison and more likely to help create safe and healthy communities. The Prison University Project has served 4,000 students in the past 20 years, and, in the past 11 years that PUP has been collecting data, not one has returned to prison for a violent crime. The recidivism rate for PUP students is 17 percent versus a 65 percent recidivism rate for California statewide.
PUP relies solely on donations from foundations and individuals, which makes a $200,000, three-year grant from Cal Wellness for core operating support critical to its success. Fatima Angeles, Cal Wellness’ vice president of programs, said the connection between education and health is clear for men preparing to return to their communities.
“There is no system that more completely dismantles a person’s ability to be healthy than the prison system,” Angeles said. “The education that the Prison University Project provides is a step toward employment, living wages and stability — all of which contribute to better mental and physical health for those returning from prison.”
The instructors at San Quentin are all volunteer faculty from UC Berkeley, Stanford, San Francisco State, UC Hastings and other local colleges. The courses are accredited and can transfer to any UC or Cal State school. Students who are not ready to take college-level courses may enroll in college preparatory courses in English and math. This fall, PUP will welcome more than 50 new students who will join over 300 classmates already enrolled. The class sizes are small, allowing for individualized attention and tutoring, and the program typically takes 3 and 1/2 years to complete.
Rodney Scott is an alumnus of the program and was released from San Quentin in March of 2015 with his associate degree. He is now working toward his drug counselor certification at Merritt College. He reconnected with his 15-year-old son and started a relationship with a grown daughter he didn’t know he had. He is active in his community, encouraging young people to attend college and make healthy choices.
“My professors were the first people I ever met who genuinely wanted to help me,” Scott said. “I had never experienced that before. People were telling me for the first time: ‘You can learn something.’ That was amazing to me.”
Early negative experiences with education is not unusual in San Quentin. Almost all of the men in the program have gaps in early schooling due to issues such as violent injuries, learning disabilities, financial problems, incarceration and barriers presented by hunger, abuse, racism, bullying and language difficulties. PUP reports that 86 percent of the men in the program have experienced violence directed at them in their early lives; 46 percent have experienced homelessness; and 36% reported not having enough food to eat.
“Our students, like most people in prison, come from some of our country’s most vulnerable and traumatized communities,” said Julie McNulty, PUP’s development director. “But they also display resilience, problem-solving skills and an incredible desire to learn.”
The students work full-time jobs in the prison and attend their classes in the evenings and on weekends. They do not have access to computers, so their term papers, often 25 pages long, are written by hand on the bunks in their cells; they don’t have desks.
Their dedication has led to some inspiring results after the students have returned to their communities. PUP graduate Sam Vaughn is a neighborhood change agent for Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. Patrick Mims, another PUP alumnus, works with Bay Area Women Against Violence. Other PUP graduates work for organizations such as Alliance for Change, Veterans Healing Veterans and the Richmond Project. And countless others have gone on to obtain bachelor’s degrees and secure stable employment while serving as positive role models in their communities.
“We believe really strongly that access to education improves not only the students’ potential for their own physical and mental well-being, but also changes how they engage with the world,” McNulty said. “The students are given the tools to think critically about what their experiences have been, and [once released], they are changing their communities. They are better fathers, sons, brothers and community members.”
The case for college in prison
The Hill, July 18, 2016
College Returns to Prison; Hope Is Fewer Prisoners Will
Pew Charitable Trusts, July 15, 2016
The Kings and Queens of The Round Table
College of Alameda, April 28, 2016
A College Education for Prisoners
The New York Times, February 16, 2016