News / USA

Prison University Gives Inmates Hope

College classes give prisoners a head start for when they rejoin society

Professor Sookyoung Lee teaches a class on critical thinking and research to inmates at San Quentin prison in California.
Professor Sookyoung Lee teaches a class on critical thinking and research to inmates at San Quentin prison in California.

Multimedia

Audio

A college education is out of reach for most state and federal prisoners. California’s San Quentin is one of the few prisons in the country that offers college-level courses.

Jody Lewen has run the facility’s college program for over a decade and she's the reason that the Prison University Project exists today.

Taking charge

When Lewen joined San Quentin's college program in 1999 as a volunteer instructor, it was run by a small volunteer staff with no budget. At that time, she was a graduate student, with plans to return to academic research. But a year later, when the part-time director suddenly quit, Lewen found herself in charge.

"I thought for a long time it was just temporary and that somebody else was going to keep the program running," she says. "But once I started doing the work and got more deeply involved, I also began to see the potential the program had. And I started to think more and more about what this program could become. There was nobody else to run it. And I thought it would just be one of those failures for the rest of my life if I let it fold.

Of the 5,500 prisoners currently housed at San Quentin, 300 enroll in the Prison University Project each semester.
Of the 5,500 prisoners currently housed at San Quentin, 300 enroll in the Prison University Project each semester.

Expanded program

Under Lewen’s leadership, the Prison University Project has expanded, now offering 20 classes in English, math, the humanities, social science and Spanish. Three hundred inmates enroll every semester, earning college credits which can lead to an associate of arts degree. Lewen has recruited more than 150 volunteer teachers and graduate students from nearby colleges and universities. She says attracting teachers is not difficult, although some of the new instructors are nervous their first time at San Quentin.

"When I talk to people about this work, very often they assume that the students are very aggressive and very difficult, all the stereotypes people have in their minds about people who are incarcerated," says Lewen. "They assume they're a lot of troublemakers and are goofing off and they don't want to do their work. That stereotype has nothing to do with reality."

Sookyoung Lee teaches a class on critical thinking and research. She finds her students are curious and engaged.

"I'm super surprised at how nice the students are. Most of the times, students are extremely respectful, way more motivated than the Cal [University of California at Berkeley] undergrads," says Lee. "It's always a pleasure for the teachers when the students are not taking learning for granted."

Hope for the future

Charles Spence is serving a life sentence in San Quentin and has a few more courses left to finish his associate's degree. He hopes to be paroled some day and wants to earn his master's degree in psychology.

The Prison University Project - which has a long waiting list - offers 20 classes in English, math, the humanities, social science and Spanish.
The Prison University Project - which has a long waiting list - offers 20 classes in English, math, the humanities, social science and Spanish.

"This experience really has changed my life. It's given me a lot of tools on how to express myself," says Spence. "This program is really rare in the prison setting, so I'm really lucky. All of the guys feel the same. We're really lucky to have the opportunity to get education, especially the way the economy is now. The odds are stacked against us when we get out, being convicted felons. This actually gives us a lot of hope and hopefully will help us succeed when we walk out the door."

So far, 100 San Quentin prisoners have graduated with associate's degrees and many more have continued their college studies after release. Research shows that the more education a prisoner has, the less likely he is to return to prison. Lewen says the recidivism rate among prisoners with college degrees is less than 10 percent.

Jody Lewen has run San Quentin's Prison University Project for over a decade.
Jody Lewen has run San Quentin's Prison University Project for over a decade.

"I remember one student saying to me 'This college program is the best drug treatment program in the world.' And it was interesting because at first I really didn't understand what he meant," says Lewen. "And he was just saying 'This program gives you hope and to stay clean and to live a healthy life, you need to have hope.'"

The Prison University Project survives on donations and foundation grants and receives no government funding. Lewen would like to see college programs in every prison but without government support, it's not likely to happen any time soon. In the meantime, there's a long waiting list of San Quentin prisoners who want to enroll in the college program. Some day, Lewen hopes to expand her program, making a college education available for most of the 5,500 prisoners currently housed at San Quentin.

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More