by Maureen Lahiff, Alameda, California Companion
Imprisoned studentMay, 2000. It was just another mass email to the people of the University of California Berkeley Statistics Department. When I opened it, my immediate reaction was “God’s got my name on this!” That summer, I began teaching as a volunteer for the College Program at San Quentin Prison. I’ve taught preparatory math classes, elementary and intermediate algebra, pre-calculus, and introductory statistics.
Patten College, a small Christian college in Oakland, used to run an extension site at San Quentin. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act took away Pell Grant Funding for incarcerated people, effectively ending most of these programs. There were approximately 350 at the time. (Thank you, Senator Helms, for saying this was a loophole that had to be closed, that federal funds to assist people pursuing higher education were not intended for them.) When the Patten Program folded, a few intrepid volunteers started teaching college classes, with Patten continuing to serve as the accrediting body. Today, the Prison University Project is an independent non-profit that coordinates 20 courses a semester for about 400 students a year.
The men I teach at San Quentin are the most highly motivated and the most appreciative students I have ever had the pleasure to work with. These men get up early in the morning, work in the prison at jobs that pay about $25 a month, and then come to class in the late afternoon and evenings. On the whole, they are unfailingly polite. They clearly have the ability to succeed in college.
True, the students in the College Program are a self-selected group. Some of them have petitioned for transfer to San Quentin specifically to participate in the College Program. To be eligible for any evening programs, they need to have figured out how to live within the prison system.
Many of the men I teach were convicted as adults when they were in their late teens. Ten or twenty years later, they’ve grown up; they’re not the same people they were when they got into the troubles that resulted in their imprisonment. Many of them fell through the gaping cracks in our educational system. All too many of them spent time in foster care.
How do they do in class? Pretty much the same as other college students. I use the same textbook to teach introductory statistics that I use at UC Berkeley. The students get stuck at exactly the same places. They do sometimes get frustrated and walk away, but they almost always come back.
Coming into the prison is the first part of the adventure. There are so many colors we can’t wear. Our clothing—especially the women’s—gets evaluated by standards that 1950s caricatures of Catholic sisters would find strict. (It helps that I’m not in my 20s any more.) All the papers we are carrying get examined. The rules keep changing. It helps to be coming through the three sign-in points with other volunteers.
Covering the material is the art of the possible. We lose classes to lockdowns. Even worse, sometimes half the class is locked down and the others can attend. If the 4:00 p.m. count clears late, we start late. We end early if there’s a “recall” or if an emergency repair is needed. Sometimes we lose a student who paroles—a good thing—or to administrative segregation.
The students struggle to get their work done. The College Program runs study hall Monday through Sunday evening, because it’s difficult for the students to work in their cells or dorms. They live in the most austere conditions any monk could imagine. I’ve been on a tour and seen the cellblocks. The buildings are very old (San Quentin Prison goes back to 1852). The corridors are around the outsides of the block and the cells are in the middle, which means that the ventilation is terrible and the only time the men can see the sun is when the yard is open and they can get outside for a while. They live in very close quarters, either in two-person cells or in huge dorms of triple-stacked bunks. There’s really no place in their “housing” for them to do their homework and writing assignments except scrunched up on their bunks. The volume of individual possessions they are allowed to have—books, radios, mementos of family—is limited to something like three cubic feet. That the students we see have learned with equanimity and humor to live in such circumstances is truly amazing. I did grow up sharing a rather tiny bedroom and closet with a sister, but I don’t know that I could manage this. I consider it “cruel and unusual” punishment.
I am not in a chapel program, or an explicitly spiritual context. My context, in contrast to those who work in “prison ministry,” is one in which I am not supposed to discuss my values; I just have to live them. The prison wants us to avoid personal conversations with our students. We want to make the best use of the precious time we have to present material and work with the students one-on-one. I hope that how I treat each one of them is an unspoken affirmation.
There is community. There are small groups that clearly care about each other as persons. The College Program is one of these, and is justly celebrated for community that crosses racial boundaries. We don’t see it so much in math classes, but the instructors in the literature and social science classes create safe places for the students to share ideas and listen to each other’s perspectives. I am reminded to be grateful for the elementary school and high school education I received. I attended overcrowded parish elementary school with zero attention to the individual child’s needs, but it was a mostly safe place. Learn we did, partly because we had a peer group who had homes in which there was nothing to do in the evening except homework, and parents who took an interest in our schoolwork and learning.
Graduation is both heartbreaking and life-affirming. The student commencement speakers are truly awesome. One that has stayed with me was the student who looked us in the eye and said, “Most of us are going to get out, and we need jobs. We need your help to make that happen.”
Most of my fellow College Program volunteers describe their reasons for teaching at San Quentin in the language of human rights; they tend to be the sort of people who view organized religion with suspicion. The Catholic Church, as an institution, is viewed as oppressive to the human spirit, especially in its treatment of women. Let’s face it, folks, even with the breath of fresh air that is Pope Francis, Roman Catholic is not perceived as a high-quality, reliable brand. I’ve come to view being open about my religious motivations
as witness.
I imagine Gaspar with me every time I enter San Quentin, every time I am frustrated with the bureaucracy of the prison or when something bad happens to one of my students, every time I strategize with my co-teachers about how to make the material accessible to the students. For the students, college classes are opportunities for much more than learning math. Having been at this for a long time allows me to see changes, and to be grateful for the small part I’ve played in them.
Maureen Lahiff belongs to the Alameda, California Companions. She is a Lecturer in the Division of Biostatistics at the University of California School of Public Health in Berkeley, where she studied at the Franciscan School of Theology.