This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter J for “Jail”.
Is it possible to put a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline by teaching creative writing to incarcerated fathers? The Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin State Prison believes it might be, and has excellent evidence to bolster their faith. PUP believes in educating incarcerated people for education’s own sake, but studies show that education dramatically improves the recidivism rate. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) the recidivism rate for new offenses is 19 percent for all prisoners released in California, compared with a 4 percent recidivism rate for PUP graduates. Over the past decade, roughly 1,000 students at San Quentin State Prison have gone through PUP.
San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest correctional institution, established in 1852. There are about 4,000 men currently incarcerated there. Some might ask why people convicted of crimes should receive a free college education. PUP’s response to this: “We refuse to accept the idea that higher education should be a scarce resource and available only to a few. The lack of educational opportunity has denied too many people the chance to succeed; we want to harness the power that education has to engage all who need it to establish productive, responsible lives.” (You can read their students’ responses to this question here.)
Amy Jamgochian, PUP’s Academic Program Director, describes the solid documentation that education reduces recidivism, but she stresses that education is also good for prisoners who will never get out of prison. “We don’t screen whether or when any of our students are getting out of prison. It’s so common for prisoners to be dehumanized; rights of citizenship are taken away to a great degree, but we believe our students are humans and deserve human rights, and education is one of those,” she says. She’s heard from a huge number of students that PUP has changed their lives and their perspective on life, whether they were ever getting out or not. “They’re able to show their families they were doing something positive; they’re able to be role models as parents and as children,” Jamgochian says.
Allie Wollner taught English 101 and pre-college English at PUP from 2011 to 2013 and felt gratified that she could offer her students a way to feel powerful and competent without using violence. “A lot of men, like all of us, wanted to feel powerful in their lives; and the ways that were available to them to feel powerful were through violence and dominance and hyper-masculinity which resulted in them in prison. What I loved about PUP was that it offered a way to be powerful by being good students, by achieving in this very different setting, by feeling good about themselves; like they’d done something praiseworthy and not damaging to themselves and others.”
Illiteracy rates in prison can be shockingly high. Some PUP students taught themselves how to read in prison and PUP prides itself on its academically rigorous programs. Classes are taught by professors who volunteer from Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and other local schools, and offer the same courses they teach at their home schools. PUP has a paid staff of 13, another 100 teachers volunteer each semester to teach 350 students, and the school runs three trimesters per year. “There are about 25 students per classroom,” Jamgochian explains. “Our average student age is 48, the oldest at 75, and youngest at 23.” 50% percent of PUP students are black, 20% white, with lower percentages of minorities from there. PUP is privately funded by foundations and individuals.
Jamgochian believes writing classes are a particularly important part of the PUP curriculum—which also includes math, science, humanities, and social sciences—because critical thinking, reading, and writing are crucial skills for living in a democracy. “Listening to different opinions and thinking independently are hugely important. One graduate said that before this program, he never would have spoken to me because I was white. It was only in the college program he started speaking to people not in his race.”
Last year, PUP ran a creative writing class for the incarcerated fathers. At the end of the trimester, the class produced a reading and the incredibly moving publication, Reflections on Fatherhood. For example, in his piece, “Born Again,” Emile DeWeaver, who has been in prison since 1998, wrote:
Fatherhood is rebirth. My angel was born, and her birth baptized me. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I couldn’t see through any eyes but hers. I couldn’t feel with any heart but hers.
Fatherhood is fraternity. On October 19, 1998, I looked at my father and saw a man who’d failed me. On October 20, 1999, my daughter entered the world squalling for a father who was in prison, and the common ground of fatherhood made my dad and me brothers. As she grew, the hard edges of my father’s failures softened because I saw a reflection of my father’s love for me in my love for my daughter.
I’m serving a life sentence. I’ve failed my child – not in every way but in enough ways – and my failure mirrors my dad’s pain. It binds us in brotherhood. Fatherhood is hope. However my life ends, the future will be bright because she’s in it.
In her introduction to Reflections on Fatherhood, PUP Executive Director Jody Lewen wrote, “Parenting is a form of teaching; at its best, education is a deeply relational experience that teaches us not just how to think but how to trust; how to depend, and how to take healthy risks.”
Jamgochian agrees, “Our students have had rocky educational pasts and little trust in education. They’re also currently dealing with structure of authority not conducive to trust, so to be in an environment where that trust is rebuilt and where the teachers and authority figures really care of what they think and are very happy to be teaching them...there’s no overestimating the value of that.”