By Phoeun You
Amanda Howell, inside coordinator for the Prison University Project (PUP), has left the nonprofi t organization that provides Associate of Arts degrees at San Quentin to pursue her own academic goals.
Howell impacted hundreds of students’ lives through her work as a PUP volunteer before becoming a full-time staff member. However, Howell said she didn’t anticipate how much her own life would be impacted.
In 2011, Howell fi rst ventured inside San Quentin as a volunteer English tutor. She had been uncertain about this decision. “I was confl icted because I was working several jobs and applying for school at the time,” said Howell.
Howell’s views changed when she met PUP’s executive director, Dr. Jody Lewen, in volunteer training in November 2010. “She is the only person I know that can talk for hours and keep you interested,” said Howell.
Prior to PUP, Howell’s career was headed toward the music industry. “Music is defi nitely one of my passions. I’ve been around music all my life; my parents were musicians,” said Howell. She once worked as a management assistant with the Neville brothers and the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars.
In 2008, the music industry took an economic downturn and she was laid off. “I took it as an opportunity to move on.” Her positive outlook led her back to what she originally wanted to do — which was to get into public policy and criminal justice.
Fortunately, PUP provided an opportunity for Howell to create change. “Everyone deserves high quality of education. It’s a human right,” said Howell.
Howell gained a greater appreciation for her students as she witnessed them overcome life diffi culties. “You don’t know what you will do until you are placed in certain situations – the negative things like making poor choices and bad decisions. The students I work with here are by far the most motivated students I’ve ever worked with.
“I’m amazed at the resilience of students, like their efforts to earn a degree. It’s incredible and inspiring to be there and see people’s family and friends come and support the graduates.”
The students also appreciate Howell’s efforts to keep PUP operating effi ciently. “I have the utmost respect for her work ethic and the way she carries herself,” said recent graduate Sa Tran.
“Amanda has been my direct supervisor since I came to work for PUP, and she has been a great boss. In everything she does, it’s obvious that she cares about the students,” said inmate Tommy Winfrey.
Raised in Pasadena, Howell majored in Mass Communications at the University of California at Berkeley. In her four and a half years working inside San Quentin, Howell admits that it was tough being away from her mom, Barbara Bolan. “It’s been a journey for her too,” said Howell, who is an only child.
Howell’s father, Dan, passed away when she was 13. Her father’s sudden death forced Howell to become more independent and gain “inner strength.” “You can do anything; you just can’t do everything,” said Howell re- fl ecting on her father’s advice. She adds, “I want to uphold his legacy, one that he would be proud of.”
When Howell’s family is not around, she feels supported by the PUP staff. “We’re doing a unique job. My co-workers have become a family. They understand so much. We know each other so well that it’s like we have our own language at this point. This job would be impossible to do without people to rely on.” Howell adds, “There are over 350 students and everyone has different needs, so we have to rely on each other. So that’s what makes it so hard to leave – this is family.”
As Howell’s time at San Quentin comes to an end, the experience gained through PUP has shaped her outlook on life. “My entire trajectory in life has been impacted by this. It completely changed what I want to do in life,” said Howell. She plans to focus her career on re-entry and transitional housing.
Reflecting on inmates’ re-entry problems, she said, “People go into housing and the decks are stacked – they are way in the middle of nowhere. How can we expect people to strive when they are sharing a tiny space, being moved from place to place, living in a community where schools are failing and lack economic stability?
“There has to be a better way. Rent is being driven up so high that people are being forced out of their own community. These are some of the things that led me into the fi eld where I’m looking to go.” –Richard Richardson contributed to this story