As a child, Troy Williams grew calloused to the South Central Los Angeles street ethos: Gangs, violence, drugs and firearms.
But Williams, now barrel-chested and 43-years-old, didn’t have the confidence to speak up in a classroom until he became a resident of San Quentin State Prison.
“In the past, I never even felt adequate in a classroom,” Williams said. “Now, I can come in, I can learn and be comfortable.”
Each weekday in this ancient, cinematic citadel – perched on the shores of San Francisco Bay since the mid-19th century – teams of educated volunteers try to provide convicted felons a college-level education.
Williams, along with about 300 inmates at the prison, qualify for enrollment in the Prison University Project, a nonprofit program that offers inmates basic education and even an associate of arts degree through Patten University, an accredited university in Oakland.
The program at San Quentin is a rare bright spot in a dismal era for California’s overcrowded prisons, which consume more than $8 billion annually. State budget crunches and tough sentencing laws have deteriorated the once model system to the point that in recent years federal courts have declared conditions in the state’s prisons unconstitutional.
Started in 1996 with just two classes and no budget, the project has incorporated as a nonprofit and runs on a budget of nearly $400,000 and a staff of about 60 unpaid volunteers, said Jody Lewen, the project’s executive director.
“One of the core commitments that we’ve been able accomplish is providing a real high-quality level education, not just a diploma mill,” Lewen said. “We’re preparing students so that they can succeed.”
Lewen said the budget is built entirely from private donations, which fund three full-time administrators. About 30 of the volunteers serve as math tutors, Lewen said, while the backbone of the program is the more than 20 volunteer teachers, all of whom have at least a master’s degree in the field they teach.
Kelly Jane Rosenblatt has taught English for three years at the prison, while working toward a doctoral degree in English Literature at the University of Oregon.
For Rosenblatt, 31, the work is personal.
“My father was incarcerated, and I realized when I was corresponding with him that there’s not a lot of opportunities in prison,” Rosenblatt said. “When I became a grad student, and eligible to volunteer, I felt like I needed to help.”
During her English 101 course, Rosenblatt guides nearly 20 students – men of all colors ranging in age from the mid-20s to the mid-60s – through an eclectic mix of short stories and novels. During a class in early June, the discourse meandered from urban farming to agricultural corporations, probing Roald Dahl’s “Pig” for insight and even touching on Upton Sinclair’s classic, “The Jungle.”
Rosenblatt challenged her students to identify complex strains of symbolism and allegory in with a rigor on par with a university-level curriculum.
The students engaged, sometimes clumsily, but with enthusiasm.
“I look forward to coming to this class a lot,” said Juan Haines, a graying, soft-spoken 53-year-old who has been in prison for 14 years. He is serving a life sentence for bank robbery. “To get into a classroom environment and to talk on an intellectual basis, with other human beings, is different than being out on the yard.”
The waitlist to enroll in classes at San Quentin is about 100 inmates, Rosenblatt said.
While the nonprofit education program is on the rise, rehabilitative and educational opportunities in California prisons have been steadily slashed over the years.
In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act barred people incarcerated in the U.S. from receiving Pell Grants, a shift that decimated higher education in U.S. prisons.
In California, the decline has been particularly tragic, said Robert Perkinson, as associate professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii and the author of “Texas Tough: The rise of America’s prison empire,” a book published last year.
“At mid-century, California was the model for professional, treatment-oriented, research-supported incarceration with an aim toward smooth reintegration,” Perkinson said. “The fall of this system into the waste that it is today is maybe the greatest tragedy in American prison history.”
Perkinson attributes the decline in rehabilitative and education programs to a triumph of politics over sound practices. As politicians realized they could score popularity with tough-talk against felons and cuts to programming in a system whose consumers don’t vote, Perkinson said, corrections policies have taken several steps back.
Now, nonprofits like the Prison University Project have stepped into the breach.
Lewen hopes the program doesn’t just give felons a better chance to succeed the next time they are released, but also raises awareness about the conditions in which more than 160,000 California prisoners live.
“We’re educating the inmates, but really what we’re also doing is bringing all these folks in from the (educational) academy,” Lewen said. “And they’re becoming educated about the prison system and the criminal justice system in a way they never would have been before.”
But the focus remains providing education in prison, bringing light into a place synonymous with darkness, despair and punishment, with an eye on reducing the numbers of parolees who re-offend.
Williams is one student who pledges his life has been changed forever. He has been in prison for 14 years, and is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for his role in a violent robbery.
Williams is known among his teachers as a quick study who enthusiastically participates in class discussions and always does his homework.
He said his favorite class is ethics.
If he is ever released, Williams vows to work with troubled youth.
“When I was 10-years-old, my older brother told me what a Crip and a Blood was,” Williams said. “That was where we grew up, that environment. I want to save other kids from going down the paths we went down.”