Greta Gaul profiles the Prison University Project on SF Gate. Excerpt below:
Thirteen students trickled into a classroom from the yard — blacks, Latinos, whites, Asians, old and young. They took their seats, and opened their textbooks, and U.S. history class began.
‘What do we mean by civil rights? What are civil rights?’ the instructor asked.
‘The liberty of all civilians,’ said one.
‘The ability to exercise all freedoms under the law,’ said another.
‘Nondiscrimination with regard to race, creed, color, sex,’ said Timothy Nash.
Nash, a tall guy with his dreadlocks pulled back, isn’t a typical college student. For starters, he’s 35 years old. Like all of his classmates, he’s also a convict at San Quentin State Prison. For the past 15 years, he’s been serving out a sentence for charges that add up to 44 years to life.
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.