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Stanford graduate students prep for fifth year of the Prison University Project

Stanford graduate students are preparing to renew their involvement with the Prison University Project for its fifth consecutive year, this year focusing on the role that inequality plays in understanding incarceration.

The Prison University Project, a nonprofit organization that runs an associate’s degree program as an extension site of Patten University, seeks to provide higher education to prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in California — the oldest prison in the state.

Ideally, the project hopes that its efforts will allow participants to live fulfilling and industrious lives once released from state custody. It is currently the only in-person college prison program in California.

 

History of the program

The program’s origins can be traced back to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This act prevented prisoners from receiving Pell Grants, leading to the virtual elimination of prison education programs across the country due to lack of funds.

Later in 1996, the College Program at San Quentin — through the instigation of a UC-Davis professor collaborating with Patten University — began with only two classes and two volunteers.

Despite its humble origins, the program has grown remarkably.

Currently 300 students are enrolled in the program, working with a team of over 100 volunteers each year.

There are 20 courses each semester in subjects ranging from social sciences and math to science and the humanities. To receive the Associate of Arts Degree offered by the program, students must complete 20 courses, including required courses across multiple disciplines.

Stanford’s involvement in the project has involved a single course taught by student volunteers. In the past four years, class topics have focused on different approaches to understanding incarceration. The exact focus has been determined by the expertise of the student volunteers.

 

Stanford’s approach

This year, the project at Stanford will focus on inequality and the problems it presents in local communities.

The course’s ultimate goal is to produce policy materials to present to Governor Jerry Brown. As an advanced seminar course, prisoners do not receive credit for this particular course.

“We wanted to create an incentive [for the students] to take [the course] seriously,” said Jeremy Jimenez, a doctoral candidate in international comparative education at Stanford and volunteer teacher for the program.

Perhaps, however, the most important aspect of the program is its cross-generational effect.

“I’ve heard many teachers speak about the generational effect when a father who’s in prison is taking college classes that inspires his children on the outside. If they are both taking college classes that deepens the bond between them,” said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Stanford Law School liaison for the project.

Nonetheless, the effect it has on students is equally as important.

“It’s valuable to both the prisoners and to the [student volunteers],” Jimenez said.

The main value for student volunteers is the real world application it offers.

“It’s the type of education about criminal law and crime policy that you can’t learn through textbooks but you can only learn through interaction,” Mukamal said.

“What is it like to go through security at a prison, to experience a lock down, to talk with and learn alongside someone who has been incarcerated since they were 17 and the impact that has had on their life and their families,” she added.

 

Contact Zachary Samuel Brown at zbrown ‘at’ stanford.edu

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