Press Release – September 15, 2016
President Obama to Award Prison University Project a 2015 National Humanities Medal
Prison University Project Executive Director Jody Lewen to Accept Award from President Obama at White House Ceremony September 22, 2016.
SAN QUENTIN, CA – The White House announced today that the Prison University Project is one of the distinguished recipients of the 2015 National Humanities Medal, which honors individuals and organizations whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizens’ engagement with history and literature, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to cultural resources.
The citation reads, “For transforming the lives of incarcerated people through higher education. Its programs offer opportunity and inspiration to their students, providing an example for others to emulate.”
Prison University Project Executive Director Jody Lewen will accept the medal, on behalf of the Prison University Project, from President Obama at a White House ceremony on September 22, 2016. The First lady will also attend. The ceremony will be live-streamed at wh.gov/live.
The College Program at San Quentin is the central focus of the Prison University Project. The program, which has existed since 1996, provides twenty courses each semester in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science, as well as intensive college preparatory courses in math and English, leading to a general education Associate of Arts degree. Students also have the opportunity to complete the coursework necessary to transfer to any California State University or University of California campus. Since its inception in 1996, the program has been an extension site of Patten University, in Oakland, CA.
According to Executive Director Jody Lewen, the central goal of the Prison University Project is to set a world-class example of a highly inclusive, academically rigorous, student-centered liberal arts college that happens to be located within a prison. “We are above all committed to demonstrating both the importance and the possibility of supporting the success of students who face a broad array of psychological, social, and cognitive learning challenges and academic skill deficits.”
Approximately 350 students are currently enrolled in the program, the sole requirement for which is a high school diploma or GED. The program charges no fees or tuition. All required textbooks are lent to students, and school supplies are provided free of charge. No student is excluded from the program based on age, length of sentence, commitment offense, or time left to serve.
The program receives no state or federal funding and is supported entirely by private individuals and foundations. Instructors all work as volunteers; most are faculty or graduate students at Bay Area colleges and universities such as UC Berkeley, Stanford, University of San Francisco, and San Francisco State University.
English instructor Courtney Rein observed, “the Prison University Project sets a high bar for its students, and alongside these high expectations, provides the support and encouragement to help students meet them. The program nurtures some of the most open, dedicated, and high-striving students I’ve ever taught. I often dream that PUP will be able to offer what it has created to other communities and prison populations across America.”
Many graduates of the program now live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, often in the social service fields. Scores have distinguished themselves for their contributions to the community.
- While incarcerated at San Quentin, Pat Mims completed his Associate of Arts degree. Upon his release in 2009, after serving twenty years in prison, he was hired by the organization Bay Area Women Against Rape, where he founded and directed the Sexually Exploited Minors Program for five years. He later served as Field Operations Coordinator for reentry services for Contra Costa County, and currently works for Rubicon Programs as an Impact Coach, assisting formerly incarcerated and homeless people to break the cycle of poverty. In 2014 Pat received three awards: the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, for his work combatting human trafficking; the My Hero Award, from the office of Nancy O’Malley, District Attorney of Alameda County, for his human trafficking work; and the Stewardship Award from Freedom House, a safe house for victims of human trafficking.
- Another alumnus of the program, David Cowan, is now Operations Manager of the Prison University Project – the first former student to work within the organization in a senior management role. David was released in 2011, after serving twenty-two years in prison, during the last five of which he served as inmate clerk for the College Program. He was initially hired as operations associate and promoted in 2015. In addition to his work with the Prison University Project, David is co-founder and Director of Reintegration for the Alliance for Change, a non-profit organization that works to socially integrate formerly incarcerated people into Bay Area communities.
- Dmitriy Orlov served five years in prison and was released earlier this year. While he participated in classes through the Prison University Project, he also served as program clerk, overseeing student enrollment and the management of program supplies. He is currently enrolled part-time at American River College, pursuing a business management and engineering degree. His professional goal is to continue working in the non-profit sector, providing access to opportunities for employment and education for underserved communities.
Prison University Project Videos
Our Impact – and Future Planning
In recent years, increased public interest in prison higher education has dramatically stepped up demand for the Prison University Project’s expertise in the field, and specifically for technical assistance for new programs. In response, PUP has begun hosting multi-day trainings as well as providing individualized support and advice to community colleges and other schools in California and across the U.S.
The Prison University Project is also engaged in an array of public education activities geared towards humanizing the image of incarcerated people in the public imagination. In particular, the organization works to amplify the voices of its students and alumni, and to facilitate meaningful contact between them and the larger world, for example through a biannual newsletter, an annual journal of student work, and other publications.
In order to assess the impact of participation in the program on students both pre- and post-release, the Prison University Project is now planning to launch a major, long-term evaluation project in spring of 2017. Executive Director Jody Lewen said, “While programs in prisons are traditionally evaluated from a correctional perspective – in terms of impact on cost, recidivism, and public safety – the goal of this project is to evaluate the impact of participation on the wellbeing of the students, their families, the larger community, and society as a whole. In particular, it will explore effects on students’ academic and professional attainment, civic engagement, mental and physical health, as well as on recidivism rates.”
For more information about the Prison University Project, please visit prisonuniversityproject.org.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) manages the nominations process for the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the White House. Each year, NEH invites nominations from individuals and organizations across the country. The National Council on the Humanities, NEH’s presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed advisory body, reviews the nominations and provides recommendations to the president, who selects the recipients. Celebrating its 50th anniversary as an independent federal agency in 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities brings the best in humanities research, public programs, education, and preservation projects to the American people. To date, NEH has awarded $5 billion in grants to build the nation’s cultural capital—at museums, libraries, colleges and universities, archives, and historical societies—and advance our understanding and appreciation of history, literature, philosophy, and language. Learn more at neh.gov. A complete list of previous honorees is available at www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals. For more information, please visit neh.gov.