San Quentin’s Prison University Project

By Christopher Zoukis

San Quentin’s Prison University Project is a Liberal Arts-based college program that currently boasts more than 300 inmates enrolled in classes.  The project is an extension of Patten University, an accredited university of Oakland, California.  Supported by the Prison University Project, the San Quentin program offers courses Sunday-Friday.  Inmates who are enrolled in the project typically take two classes each semester and work toward their Associate of Arts degree.  For those students who are not yet ready to enroll in college-level coursework, the project also includes college-preparatory classes.

About the Prison University Project

Founded in 1996, the Prison University Project began with a mere two classes and a single coordinator working on a volunteer basis.  Today, the program’s faculty continues on a volunteer basis.  Funding is obtained through donations from both private individuals and foundations.  To date, more than one hundred inmates have earned their Associates Degree.  Though many are released from prison on parole, they often continue their studies nonetheless.  The program includes courses in English, Math, Science, Humanities, and Social Sciences.  Although a high school diploma or GED are prerequisites for enrollment in the program, many enrollees still require preparatory coursework before entering the Associate of Arts program.  Image courtesy

Faculty and Staff

Since the project’s early days when it relied on one coordinator, the Prison University Project now boasts ten staff members who operate the program daily.  Staff members also oversee budgetary aspects of the program and participate in advocacy events for higher learning in prisons.  Since this program began nearly two decades ago as a response to the government’s cutting of prison education programs, it has steadily grown by building its own support base and working with publishers who often donate the project’s text books or other learning materials.

Each faculty member volunteers their time to teach the prison inmates who participate in both the college preparatory and Associates of Arts programs.  According to the project’s website,

“Most of the volunteer instructors, teaching assistants, guest lecturers and tutors who participate in the College Program are graduate students or faculty from the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, and other local colleges and universities. All primary instructors hold at least a master’s degree in the field in which they teach.”

Consequently, the program has been revered for its quality education and commitment to bring higher learning to the prison setting.

Beyond Academics

Image courtesy redeemingeducation.blogspot.comThough the coursework of the Prison University Project is the cornerstone of its design, the project has ultimately been designed to provide inmates with new job skills so that they may be more employable upon release.  Moreover, one of the program’s stated goals is to “prepare them to become providers, leaders, and examples for their families and communities.”

The program’s staff and partners in this project are also committed to advocacy.  Part of their mission is to awaken public awareness and generate more support for prison education in the state of California.  Program advocates continuously challenge notions about inmates and point to the project’s success as a stand-alone higher education program and as a model for other prisons to adopt. 

Other Aspects of the Prison University Project

Participants in the San Quentin higher education project contribute writing for the project’s Annual Journal of Creative Writing. The project also produces a bi-annual newsletter.  Inmates participate in creative performance and gain new insights and perspectives through their academic training.  The faculty has been committed to helping the inmates transform their lives through education.  Aside from the project’s annual graduation ceremony, it also hosts various events relative to culture and academics.

Program Gifts

While monetary gifts certainly keep the program on course and allow it to continue uninterrupted, it’s the gifts the program gives to student inmates that have ultimately resulted in the project’s success.  The project’s website features various students who have been or are enrolled in coursework and each of them describes what the project has meant for them.  They talk about feeling a sense of community, how education has enriched their lives, and how their academic pursuits can “make a positive impact on loved ones!”  A sense of purpose, a positive pursuit, and the awakening of new interests are some of the reasons inmates find the Prison University Project meaningful and life changing.

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