Our Mission

The mission of the Prison University Project is to provide an intellectually rigorous, inclusive Associate of Arts degree program and College Preparatory Program, free of charge, to people at San Quentin State Prison; to expand access to quality higher education for incarcerated people; and to foster the values of equity, civic engagement, independence of thought, and freedom of expression.


In 1994 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act barred people incarcerated in the U.S. from receiving Pell Grants. This piece of legislation effectively ended prison higher education in the U.S., as virtually all of the approximately 350 programs around the country shut down for lack of funds.

The College Program at San Quentin was founded in the wake of this disaster. Initiated by a professor from UC Davis, in cooperation with then-Patten College and members of the Education Department at San Quentin, the Program began in the fall of 1996 with two classes, a volunteer coordinator, and no budget.

In 2003, the Prison University Project was formed (fiscally sponsored by the Tides Center) to provide material, administrative, and financial support to the College Program at San Quentin. In 2006, the organization was incorporated as an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit and continued operating the College Program at San Quentin as an extension site of Patten University—our accredited university partner.

In July 2018, Patten University informed the Prison University Project that it would close at the end of 2019. This announcement emboldened the organization to take the huge step toward becoming an independent college.

In January 2019, after an 18-month application and review process, the Prison University Project was granted Candidacy for accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)—a significant achievement which reflects nearly 25 years of work building a high-quality Associate of Arts degree program at San Quentin State Prison.

Today, with unprecedented social, political and philanthropic interest, we play a central role in new efforts to expand access to higher education within California’s prison system and nationwide, while continuing to enhance our programs at San Quentin. In recognition of our impact and our leadership in supporting educational opportunities for the incarcerated, the organization was awarded the 2015 National Humanities Medal by President Obama.