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San Quentin's Prison University

The Prison University Project uses community volunteers to provide prison inmates with college education.

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Almost twenty years ago, a group of community volunteers started the Prison University Project as a way of providing prisoners at San Quentin, California, with access to a college education. 

Now the Project has over 120 volunteers, many of them students at local universities, who teach college classes to inmates at the prison. The Project awards prep and associate arts degrees to successful students, equipping them with credentials and skills that they can use to reassimilate into community life upon their release.

Access to education has had a profound impact on the lives of the prisoners. Some estimate that the rate of recidivisim (or return to prison after release) is cut by half for prisoners that participate in the program. For many prisoners the promise of a degree is a goal to focus on, and a source of pride. The Executive Director of the program, Jodi Lewen, was quoted in an article describing it like this:"For them, it's like oxygen. It makes the world bigger."

The Project is a non profit, funded by donations and individuals and sustained by many community volunteers. It's an excellent example of how communities can rally around each other to improve the fortunes of groups that are otherwise marginalized and isolated. 

Empowering one person can have a ripple effect: a graduate student teaches a prisoner college classes who is then an example for his own young children. He returns to his community with skills that allow him to participate in the workforce and support the people in his life. 

How might we recognize opportunities for education in non traditional settings – and harness the skills of eager community members to help provide training?


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