On an early Wednesday morning, a green bus with silver trim rolled into California’s oldest prison. Prisoners filed out to begin serving time. Later that same day at the same institution, educators and school supervisors from outside the prison arrived to talk to incarcerated students and their inside-the-wall teachers.
The March 4 Teacher’s Forum hosted interested San Francisco Bay Area educators in San Quentin State Prison’s Protestant Chapel. Could these educators learn something from the experience of incarcerated men that would help them stop students on the outside from dropping out of school and winding up in prison?
The participants followed the Restorative Justice Circle process.
“The circle process is a place for community sharing, listening to understand, not to respond,” said Tommy “Shakur” Ross. “Circles are for a story sharing process.”
The prisoners spoke about why they dropped out of school. Their stories highlighted childhood trauma, sexual abuse, the death of a parent, drug dependent parents, substance abuse, gang membership and gang violence.
The prisoners talked about their home life, about growing up without mentors or adult supervision, as well as about their relationships with their schools and teachers. They talked about the trouble they got into, the consequences of being labeled as troublemakers, and the school’s use of detention or being sent out of the classroom. These experiences, they said, led to confusion and missed opportunities for teaching and learning.
The solutions, they said, could come from restorative justice and culturally responsive ideas.
“Listening to a student with a low learning self-esteem is a plus,” said De’Angelo Prince, 20, about what could have kept him in school. “Schools on the outside need to do more listening and trying to understand a student to figure out where they need help at—meet them where they’re at. If we do that people would graduate and go to college.”
Prince is a student in San Quentin’s adult education program. He also participates in several self-help programs offered at the prison, including a writing workshop geared toward serving at-risk youth, a program that focuses on younger prisoners and the violence prevention program No More Tears.
William Feather teaches high school in Mendocino County Jail.
“I was never told that I could get a good education in a safe place,” Feather said. “Sometimes homes are a hard environment. There has to be a buy-in; the question is how do we grab the kids?”
Feather then told the “Two Wolves” Native American folklore.
Everyone has two hungry wolves that live inside him or her. One fights and is disruptive to the world, while the other is calm and understanding.
“The one that wins is the one that we feed,” Feather said.
J. Pertilli, principal for Helms Middle School in San Pablo. said that her school conducts listening circles with eight students at a time to find out what they need and what shuts them down.
Pertilli said that hearing similar stories from her students and the prisoners validates “to do whatever it takes, not to remove a student from class. You have to have compassion to teach.” Referring to the prisoners, she added, “These guys reminded me [that] what I’m doing is valued.”
Zach Whelan, executive director of Project Avary, serves children of incarcerated parents.
“The thing that sits with me is that there is a need for more welcoming,” Whelan said. “A lot of guys shared that in schools they felt unwelcomed, which led to something else.” He added, “Showing up in whatever space we’re at does not cost a lot of money. It’s an attitude.”
One school administrator talked about the school’s inability to tackle some social problems and how those social problems show up as behavioral problems by the time the student gets into middle school.
“One day the kid is happy, the next they shut down,” said Oscar Espinosa, after talking about a childhood trauma. He alerted the teachers that they should pay attention to sudden changes in the demeanor of students.
Robert Russell, 54, is a teacher’s aide in San Quentin’s adult education program.
He said he explains the value of education to incarcerated students “in a way they can understand. It’s amazing how much of an impact that has on men.”
“Being seen and heard and having someone to talk to is important,” Russell said as he brushed back his greying brown hair and told his story.
Emerald Kemp-Aikens, a 25 year-old African American, listened to Russell talk about growing up in a home full of outlaws and family members going in and out of prison. Russell said school was far from his mind as he ran the streets with a childhood friend. Fifteen years later, he said, they met up in prison.
Aikens perked up and said, “I remember one day coming home and seeing a curtain in the kitchen. I pulled it back and saw this man that I’ve never seen before. He was cooking crack, so I left and went to a friend’s house to play ball. It was 15 years later that I saw the same friend in prison. I wasn’t thinking about school or anything like that. I only was thinking [about] having fun and doing what I want to do. There weren’t any consequences, because my mom was more like a friend than a mother—she pretty much let me do what I wanted to do.”
Aikens is currently in the education department studying for his GED, as well as computer literacy and yoga. He also is a member of the San Quentin Warriors basketball team.
“The programs take a lot of stress off me,” Aikens said, adding, “When I’m dribbling the ball, I’m in a whole other place.”
He said that he’s looking forward to getting out of prison by year’s end and is “determined to make it in the world” with a lot of support from his extended family.
William Tolbert, who was a student in the education department, said, “I didn’t learn to read until I came to prison on this jolt at age 37. If the teachers can take anything from this—it’s ‘communication.’” Tolbert is currently enrolled in the prison’s college program.
Peer educator Freddie Cole commented, “This is so important for people on the streets to hear, so that we don’t spend billions on prisons and instead spend more in schools.”
Mary Roberts, of San Francisco Unified School District, said, “I believe in my heart…that oppression is caused by not giving people the resources they need. That’s prevalent in schools.”
Whelan closed out the forum by saying, “In America today, we need to begin our days like this, with a check in and a check out, so that we can prevent the roadblocks to learning.”
San Quentin News Editor-in-Chief Marcus “Wali” Henderson added, “Teachers on the outside, you’re on the ground floor. The world needs to hear our voices, because kids are ending up here.” Referring to the prisoners, he said, “The men in blue are in a place where we can share and not be judged.”