San Quentin’s Prison University Gives Inmates Freedom to Learn

By Greta Kaul / SF Gate

San Quentin is home to the Prison University Project, the largest on-site college-in-prison program among California state prisons. Inmates in PUP earn their associate’s degree for free, with volunteer instructors from schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley.

Opponents of higher education in prison, like those who voted down a proposal in New York earlier this year, say it’s wrong to give a taxpayer-funded degree to convicts. Some are fine with providing remedial and vocational education, but draw the line at college, a commodity families sacrifice thousands of dollars to give their children.

Advocates see inmate education as a question of helping people stay out of prison once they’re released, and furthermore, of putting communities more at ease about the formerly incarcerated returning to their neighborhoods.

Breaking the cycle

Nothing about Nash, who is from Oakland, would suggest that he killed a person. He spoke of his love of writing, which is why he started at PUP in the first place, and of hobbies, like drawing comic books for kids. At the moment, he was working on one that combined Spongebob Squarepants and football, two of his stepson’s favorite things. He talked about how attending classes had changed his life within San Quentin’s walls and his hopes for the future.

“Being in the class takes me away from just our regular yard associations, so I’m out in the yard with people I wouldn’t have met” if not for class, Nash said. “We had a debate out there last night about how certain presidents have helped or hindered the progress of America.”

Nearly two-thirds of California’s released felons end up back behind bars within three years, according to 2012 data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Inmates who participated in college programs were about half as likely to land back in prison than those who did not, a 2013 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found.

The higher the level of education a person attains, the less likely they are to go back to prison, studies find. Even if they do return, advocates point out that inmates who receive academic or vocational education cost the system up to $9,700 less, a Rand Corp. study found.

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