Future cops, probation officers and students of criminal justice from Britain got an up-close view of an American prison during a visit to San Quentin. They met the incarcerated artists who had donated paintings to the University of Derby’s gallery.
The art hangs in Friar Gate Square — “It’s a big copper building. People call it the copper box,” said Charlotte Hargreaves, head of the university’s criminology and social science departments. “The art tells a story — you don’t see the inmate; you see the art.”
On the May 30 visit, Hargreaves was joined by 12 undergrads and Tony Blockley, head of policing.
Hargreaves and Blockley mingled with the artists in the prison’s art studio while the undergrads toured the prison. When the students completed the tour, they joined the professors in the studio.
“The students are very honest with their questions to the artists,” said Carol Newborg, manager of the San Quentin Arts in Corrections program. “They’ve been all over the U.S. touring, but San Quentin is the only place where they meet incarcerated people.”
Orlando Smith talked about the piece he donated.
“I envisioned it as the future,” Smith said. “I’m wearing prison clothes, and then I’m at Comic-Con. What that means is that the future is yet to be written — so the piece is called, This or That.”
Stanley Bey has donated art to Derby for the past three years.
“My art talks about the struggles of humanity shouldered by women and men together because without them things will never go to the future and will stay in the past,” Bey said.
Second-year student Ellen Moss said, “I love the art. Each one has a message behind it.” She recalled a painting of a train donated last year by James Norton, “That really stood out.”
Moss said she plans to work for criminal justice reform in the United Kingdom by getting rehabilitation programs into every prison.
“I want young people to get rehabilitation so that they don’t resort to gang activity,” Moss said. “I won’t give up. I’ll write angry letters to all of the leadership, including the prime minister, until they get sick of hearing from me. I’ll tell them when things are bad or they’ve done something awful.”
Hargreaves said the idea of the U.S. trip was “to get an international aspect of criminology and to let the students see systems that are not Euro-centric.”
The students also toured Alcatraz, went on a ride-a-long with Berkeley police, and visited the San Francisco public defender and probation departments.
The students also visited a state university in Los Angeles to study a gang- reduction program, a juvenile hall, a shooting range and the county jail.
“That was awful,” Hargreaves said about the jail conditions. What struck her was the number of people in the U.S. serving sentences of “proper life,” or “life without the possibility of parole.”
There are a significantly lower number of prisoners serving “proper life” in England, only several hundred, while in the U.S. there are tens of thousands. She also noted that the lengths of sentences in the U.S. are much longer for the same kind of crimes in England.
Second-year student Rachael Livermore said she best enjoyed the ride-a-long with Berkeley police.
“They showed us areas where crime occurs,” Livermore said. “It was interesting.”
Livermore says that she would like to become a probation officer and help people with mental illnesses.
“In my family, mental health is a big thing — it’s impacted my family,” she said. “But, I couldn’t work in a prison. I’d come home in tears too many days.”
Livermore said that watching media influenced her perspective about incarcerated people.
“You see things in the media and it’s so harsh. It’s so humbling to talk to you all — you all are so friendly.”
Asked to consider how crime victims might take that statement, Livermore said, “Even though the victim’s families need justice and punishment — many times after decades of incarceration the person who committed, even an awful crime, might not be the same person — people change.”
Livermore liked the painting donated last year that resembled The Scream, “It describes life on the inside very well,” she said.
While in San Francisco, the students served meals to the homeless.
Blockley commented on how working in a soup kitchen affected the students: “When they are serving food, they realize that they are serving human beings and they realize the blessing of their circumstance.”
Hargreaves noticed “the stark difference between rich and poor” in San Francisco. Adding, serving the homeless “humanized the poor. I think our students will learn more this week than their whole three years from the bachelor’s program.”
Hargreaves took notice of armed police officers in the U.S. British police officers are normally unarmed. She said the concept of millions of guns and millions of incarcerated people seems almost “inconceivable,” adding, “the population of San Quentin is equivalent to one of our small towns.”
Next year the university plans to visit Holland before coming to the U.S. with an idea to give students a broader perspective on the treatment of incarcerated people.
Hargreaves talked about her work with juveniles. She said she found it troubling that 14- 15- year-old youngsters read at a 5th grade level and “the system did nothing to address it.” Nevertheless, she said that the UK juvenile system went from incarcerating about 10,000 children to around 800.
“There needs to be much more in rehabilitation and educational opportunities for incarcerated people,” Hargreaves said.
Blockley commented that new police recruits must earn a bachelor’s degree.
“A college degree gives them the tools to critically think about the people they deal with on a daily basis,” Blockley said.
“If we are able to communicate, we are able to see things differently. That’s what an education can do,” Blockley said. “It can allow the officer to consider the cultural differences in the country.”
Blockley said, “If we’re truly about education, it’s about preparing the students for the rest of their lives. The experience that they get from coming inside San Quentin will be remembered for the rest of their lives.
“When our students come in to San Quentin and talk to the artists, that experience cannot be taken away.”