By Carley Stavis
Arts Editor

It is 7:42 on an unseasonably warm Monday night in November, and the discussion inside the tiny classroom centers on Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”

The overhead lights cast an artificial glow on the room’s dusty white walls and under their glare, one poster near the door stands out among the rest, delivering a particularly appropriate message: “You can always be a better person today than the one you were yesterday.”

Two long tables fill the center of the room, flanked by a sea of stormy blue government-issued sweats and collared shirts. Printed broadly across the backs and legs of those wearing them are the letters CDCR, short for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In every practical way, the students under the fluorescent lights are no different than the approximately 15,000 at UC Santa Cruz or more than 15 million throughout the country — except that they are taking college classes while incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

Educating the Public

Perched over the San Francisco Bay on the Marin County side of the Richmond Bridge, San Quentin remains the oldest prison in California. The ominous and statuesque facility was built in 1852 by prisoners, for prisoners, and it houses the only death row in the state.

The prison is home to the College Program at San Quentin, funded and run by the nonprofit organization Prison University Project (PUP). The College Program at San Quentin represents California prisoners’ only on-site means of completing accredited college classes, such as the U.S. History class in session on Monday nights, in order to earn an Associate of Arts degree.

To date, the program has seen 74 students graduate while still incarcerated, and at any given time, it estimates that between 20 and 30 former students are enrolled in college courses outside of the prison’s confines.

Despite the demonstrated success of the program, it continues to depend entirely on donations and volunteer support. While numerous studies point to the social and financial benefits of investment in programs like the Prison University Project, now in its 12th year of existence, the public and its politicians remain rigid when it comes to the notion of educating the ever-growing, widely re-offending prison population.

Jody Lewen, who earned her Ph.D. in rhetoric from UC Berkeley — which works very closely with the student inmates at San Quentin — has volunteered with the PUP since 1999 and serves as its executive director. She sees the public as a potential driving force in creating government-funded prison education programs, though at present, she said, the public is serving as a roadblock to such government involvement.

“Politically, we lack the good leadership needed to get programs like these at the government level,” Lewen said. “But I also see politicians as puppets. They will follow the lead of the public. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t tend to give a shit about prisoners. In the public eye, they’re all these sadistic, lunatic psychos.”

In reality, the prison population represents a more mundane slice of the population than the average citizen might think. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated one of every 15 persons (6.6 percent) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.”

Despite these numbers, the prison population remains widely stigmatized. Thus, since its first year running a fully-functioning college program, the goal of the PUP has not only been to provide education to prisoners, but also to the voting members of society.

Lewen notes that one of the PUP’s primary aims is to dispel common misconceptions about California’s prison population while simultaneously spreading knowledge of the social and financial benefits of prison education programs.

“People might not be able to understand everything on paper, with data, but seeing faces, hearing names, they’ll usually come around,” Lewen said. “We try to give them that — with our newsletters, with the recent photography exhibit at Alcatraz, by talking to the media. I try to be hopeful that one day it will pay off.”

Still, for the PUP and similar programs throughout the nation, tapping into the public’s reasoning mechanism, as well as its wallet, remains the foremost challenge.

The Root of the Problem

Dirk Van Velzen is a Washington state prisoner currently doing time in Arizona because of overcrowding in his home state. In 2001 he started the Prison Scholar Fund (PSF), a scholarship program that helps inmates earn bachelor’s degrees at a number of U.S. universities such as Pennsylvania State University, Louisiana State University and Lehigh University.

“When the Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was passed, prisoners no longer had the ability to apply for Pell Grants to pay for their education,” Van Velzen said from a pay phone at Saguaro Correctional Center. “When I was sentenced to prison I knew I wanted to do something with my time and work toward a degree, but there were no financial resources available to me.”

Figuring that his frustration was shared in the prison community, Van Velzen began writing hundreds of letters to churches, foundations, businesses and organizations requesting educational funding. Though these initial efforts were fruitless, continued letter-writing on Van Velzen’s part, year after year, has allowed the PSF to thrive.

Both the PUP and the PSF are considered successful programs in a nation widely put-off by the idea of educating its inmates. The PSF was recently granted $14,000 by the Annenberg Foundation, a sum that will cover more than 50 new scholarships. The PUP continues to enroll upward of 250 students annually, and watches many of them graduate every June.

While those fighting to get government funding for prison education programs acknowledge that these numbers illustrate tremendous successes, they are quick to note that government assistance, coinciding with public interest in these projects, would make an insurmountably positive impact on the financially strained programs.

John Linton serves as director of the United States’ Office of Correctional Education, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education that focuses primarily on vocational and adult programs. He feels that government involvement would result in massively more productive, successful prison education programs, and prisons in general, by drastically reducing recidivism at rates most other efforts cannot match.

“There is no simple, cheap, or singular solution to the problems that face America’s prisoners,” Linton said. “As a nation, we are now awash in prisoners … and a solution needs to account for many different elements of the system. One important element, though, is that the government needs to help build the success rate of prisoners released through education. We need to better prepare [them], provide support both at the point of release and longer term. We might not be doing all that we can to identify, and respond intelligently to, former prisoners who ‘relapse.’”

Sheer numbers illustrate the flaws in the American prison system when it comes to recidivism. According to a New York Times article published in April 2008, while America accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s total population, we house nearly one-quarter of its prisoners, with an estimated 2.3 million people behind U.S. bars.

Van Velzen, referring to the high numbers of incarcerated Americans, pointed out the fact that the United States has not always had the “tough on crime” mentality, naturally resulting in significant prison overcrowding.

“There was a time when society cared a lot more about helping prisoners — rehabilitation, education, and parole were much bigger aspects of the Department of Corrections in the ’70s and ’80s,” Van Velzen said. “But when the ’90s rolled around, corrections became more political and we moved further away from rehabilitation and closer to just corrections.”

Studies consistently show that despite public aversion to the idea, providing education tends to be an exemplary means of reducing recidivism, or keeping former inmates from re-entering the prison system post-release.

This opinion can be traced directly to the fact that studies on prison education programs and their post-release effects consistently point to success. A standout among such reports was the Three State Recidivism Study, headed by Stephen Steurer, executive director of the largest international organization of correctional educators, the Correctional Education Association.

The 2001 study looked at more than 3,600 former inmates who had been released for at least three years from prisons in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio. From a social perspective, the study found that “simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent.”

From a financial perspective, the study reported, “Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returns more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.”

While this landmark study focused specifically on education, Steurer said that traditional schooling is not the only means of social and financial prosperity in the prison system. A variety of different programs serving the individual needs of inmates, he believes, would allow for the greatest recidivism reduction.

“Providing a wide range of programs … from basic literacy through high school and college, re-entry skills and continued job and social support after release, is generally thought to be the best approach,” Steurer said. “Essentially, a holistic continuum of services [works best].”

Despite research in psychology and criminology stating otherwise, Steurer said, there is still a large segment of the population that subscribes to the notion that prisoners are the least entitled segment of society when it comes to education — and the least capable of putting it to good use.

“In response to people who think that prisoners aren’t capable of change,” Steurer said, “I would say that they are ill-informed about the value of education in all of our lives.”

Defining success

The fight for government financial assistance and public support of prison education programs will be a continuous one. Nonetheless, the PSF and PUP remain optimistic, defining success on their own terms by looking at what is being accomplished now, not what could be accomplished eventually.

Van Velzen is currently finishing up classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in business through Penn State University, and has seen many personal and professional successes during his time as a student prisoner. He earned the Evan Pugh Scholar award for being in the top half of the top 1 percent of his senior class at Penn and made the Dean’s List three times, among numerous other academic accomplishments. Thus far, though, none of these accolades have helped Van Velzen earn clemency and early release, despite his attempts. Nonetheless, his primary concern upon release, regardless of when that may be, is to get into a master’s program in business. He has already applied to Stanford and UC Berkeley.

And one state away from Van Velzen’s Arizona prison cell, at San Quentin’s makeshift college where math classes are held each week, four inmates who take courses through the PUP are discussing their own accomplishments, reasons for wanting an education, and post-release plans.

“I was doing time down south a few years ago,” said Allen Webb, who is currently serving a 19-year sentence for two counts of armed robbery and is scheduled to parole in 2015. “Someone challenged me to take the GED test and I passed it the first time. … From then, I knew I wanted more education.”

Webb hopes education will become more prominent in the future among youth.

“I guess I’d explain it like this: the Prison University Project is a great thing that they offer to us while we’re here,” Webb said. “But I’m doing this so that the next generation doesn’t need prison to know they need an education. We’re getting an education for re-entry, but ideally we’d be educating our youth so that re-entry doesn’t ever have to happen.”

Sitting across the table from Webb, Anthony Bergstrom, who will parole in June of 2009 after serving a two-year sentence for receiving stolen property, nods his head.

“One of the pastors here was just saying the other day to us that the way things are, 70 percent of our sons will end up here just like us,” Bergstrom said. “When my son is old enough, I want him to know why I came here. I’ll answer when he asks me about my tattoos and all that, but I don’t ever want him to spend a single day in my shoes here. That’s why I’m doing this.”

For Eli Sala, taking classes in prison has proven to be far easier than taking them outside of San Quentin’s walls.

“I tried taking classes at night after I got my GED and I was always distracted,” Sala said. “It’s easier to concentrate in here. And it brings things back. Like in one of the English classes, I remembered stuff from when I was younger and doing it again forces me to think more about it.”

Dan Hamff has been in prison more times than he could count. During this most recent stint, he started taking classes for the first time. He said that they are what will keep him out of prison in the future. For him, getting involved in the program was about shedding hatred from life before prison and doing something productive, harking to the sentiment glaring under the fluorescent lights in the history class: “You can always be a better person today than the one you were yesterday.”

“I’d really hate to waste my time while locked up,” Hamff said. “I’d rather be around people who are also trying to move forward — people who are trying to come out of here better than they were when they came in. That’s why I’m here.”

As the men returned to their seats in various math classes held simultaneously in the converted-barn classrooms, the facility’s night guard, Officer Biddenback, watched them come and go. Looking at them, textbooks, notepads and pencils tightly in hand, he crossed his arms and straightened his shoulders before making one last point about the PUP — and really, about prison education in general.

“Night after night, I stand here and I can see out the door onto the yard where the majority of the prisoners are doing nothing,” Biddenback said. “Some of them are running laps, playing basketball, but most of them are huddled in their same groups. [Then] I look in here at these men trying to do something more, and something better.”

Biddenback is referring to men like Anthony Bergstrom, Allen Webb and Eli Sala. He is referring to their hundreds of San Quentin classmates taking courses thanks to the Prison University Project, and presumably to students in prisons elsewhere in the country, like Van Velzen and the many inmates who have earned scholarships through his Prison Scholar Fund.

Biddenback peered, almost father-like, into the surrounding classrooms. He looked at the inmates, hands raised, eyes focused intently on the math equations covering the blackboards, and with a humble ardency, he finished his thought.

“If the public could see what I see each night, and you asked them what they would rather have — prisoners doing nothing or prisoners working for an education — I think that the choice would be pretty clear.”