For several weeks every semester, a few cars of UC Berkeley students drive to San Quentin. They carry whistles and wear baggy clothes in strictly defined colors – no blue, grey, yellow or orange allowed. These are tutors from Teach in Prison, one of the many educational resources available at the Robert E. Burton School in San Quentin.
Located near a large city and several major universities, San Quentin sees over 3,000 volunteers – according to Frank Kellum, the vice principle, that’s more than the other 33 California penal institutions combined. It includes groups like the Teach in Prison DeCal (which stands for Democratic Education at Cal, and is run entirely by students), as well as groups like Project Rebound from San Francisco State.
Situated in two bungalows, the Robert E. Burton School offers education at various levels. For inmates with nonviolent crimes, enrollment in an education program can offer up to 6 weeks off of a sentence. Adult Basic Education (ABE) addresses primary literacy at three different levels. ABE1 covers up to a 4th grade level, ABE2 addresses 4th-6th grade, and ABE3 is for 6th-9th grade.
From there, students may attain their GED. For any students who wish to pursue higher education, there are several secondary education programs run by volunteer professors. Patten University in Oakland, for example, offers an AA through the nonprofit Prison University Project. All professors hold master’s degrees in the subjects they teach, and many graduated from local universities like UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, Kellum’s alma mater.
Kellum sees great importance in programs like Teach in Prison, which he helped found 13 years ago.
“DeCal is community,” he says. “And one of the keys to rehabilitation is community. It’s the ability to interact with people from the community in a positive manner. You educate to liberate from ignorance, stupidity, fear and the other things that hold people back.”
The school is within a larger bureaucracy that makes it more difficult to teach in than a normal school. Teachers and tutors must pass through security clearance to even enter the premises, and small errors in dress code – such as wearing a black t-shirt faded enough to be deemed grey – can result in denied entry. Foggy mornings can result in cancellation of class, and lockdowns can prevent an inmate from attending. And the student population can present unique complications.
“At a lower level, older people, some of them failed in public schools and they do have a negative attitude towards education,” says Kellum, “and that’s where the teacher comes in, to motivate to learn.”
But many students feel otherwise.
“Most of them are eager to learn,” says Kellum. “They want to learn. They have a chance – they have an environment where it’s conducive to learning. And they apply themselves.”
California’s recent realignment affects the state of education at San Quentin. According to a recent edition of the San Quentin News, an inmate-written newspaper, realignment has doubled the number of inmates in the general population who are seeking places in rehabilitative programs, including education. They have increased GED teachers from one to two, but there is now an 18 month to 2-year wait list for the Prison University Program. The prison increasingly relies on Voluntary Education Programs, like Patten’ Prison University Project. Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language programs faced the chopping block in 2010, so VEP is expected to bridge the gap. This, San Quentin News warns, could have “troublesome implications” for lifers who hope to use education as a way to shorten sentences and start new lives.
These new problems illustrate the importance of volunteer efforts at San Quentin, and what a key role these volunteers play in changing lives, both of the inmates and their own.
“When you volunteer, you’re free,” says Kellum, reflecting on the role of the young volunteers. “It’s something I enjoy doing, and I think people like you will make a difference. That’s what my thoughts are. Make a difference – you are another generation. You are a generation that can affect change and I see through intergenerational dialogue as we are doing here that will help bring about.”