A team of prisoners met with youth coaches from the San Francisco Bay Area in San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel on Feb. 28. They talked about young people’s understanding of masculinity and the role coaches play in their lives.
Coaching4Life aims to show coaches how to maximize the impact they have on young athletes.
“We believe that youth coaches are the most influential people in their lives,” said Coaching4Life facilitator Brandon Terrell. “You may think that it’s the job of the parents, but 20 million kids are growing up without a father. I’m one of them.” He added, “Sports are in the perfect position to show young boys how to serve others and be committed to a cause bigger than themselves.”
Terrell went on to say that 92% of high school dropouts didn’t play sports, while 95% of Fortune 500 executives played high school sports and gave credit to their sports experience for their successes in life.
Coaching4Life was a one-day workshop that discussed how the definition of “man” changed since childhood, the wide range of teachings that coaches impart on youth, how to teach masculinity and “The Man Box.” The workshop also focused on defining success.
“I loved growing up in The Man Box,” Ronald Carter said. “I got picked first.”
Carter talked about the respect he gained by putting on the “tough guy” persona and how being called the wrong name, like sissy or chump, was serious business.
“If you call me one of those names, I’d go off. I’d want to fight,” Carter said. “Those names take us out of the box.”
Carter went on to talk about how maturity shifted his perspective about masculinity. Today, he says, he’s on a mission to help younger athletes.
“Show me the man you honor, and I’ll show you the man you want to be,” Carter said.
The workshop participants formed small groups to discuss each topic.
Some participants defined success as “being able to ask for help without being ashamed or to say that I love my family.” Others, “setting goals and seeing them through,” “being a positive influence,” “being happy and in a healthy relationship,” and understanding that “coaches are teachers and kids are sponges,” as well as, “coaches are authority figures that young athletes look up to.”
Kevin Sample, one of the facilitators, talked about the time coaches spend with young athletes.
“Each day my mother got 10 minutes with me, that same day my coach got four hours,” Sample said. “So, having coaches that teach life skills is important.”
Sample talked about how young kids pay attention to athletes and model the behavior they see.
He then challenged the audience to connect with the children in order “to change the world,” adding, “Our biggest problem is that we hide our brokenness from children.”
What is success? he asked. “Remember that children just don’t know— help our kids, heal their brokenness.”
The Coaching4Life facilitators have 266 years combined incarceration experience—the youngest, Juan Navarro, 33 years old, has been incarcerated for nine years.
“Nothing like this is happening in any other prison,” said Dwight Kennedy. “The volunteers could be doing something different, but they choose to come and do this.”
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.”
California has an estimated 5,000 people serving life without parole (LWOP), and their plight is almost never discussed—especially the way the sentence affects female prisoners.
A campaign to drop California’s use of LWOP received a public airing late last year. Kelly Savage, Tammy Cooper-Garvin, Brandi Taliano and Susan Bustamante shared their pain and the trauma of serving a LWOP sentence with a packed audience.
The Oakland event marked the first time the women were able to participate in a town hall meeting similar to one that first created public awareness of their situation. Then-Governor Jerry Brown commuted the women sentences.
Their stories and those of others still imprisoned are described in an audio storytelling project titled “A Living Chance,” released through the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP).
“The event was eye-opening; people really don’t know what LWOP is,” said Laverne Shoemaker, another panelist, whose sentence was commuted. “Once I was in a group of 23 San Francisco police officers, I had to explain and I mean really break it down to them what an LWOP sentence is and what a life sentence is.”
In criminal cases involving “special circumstances” a person may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole instead of condemned to death in the penalty phase of a trial. The sentence is not restricted only to the person who pulls the trigger, but also to anyone else who was a participant in the crime as well, under California’s “felony murder rule.”
The advocates are fighting to have LWOP eliminated from the state’s penal code. They argue that it is worse than the death penalty, because it is really a living death sentence.
“I was praying that I wasn’t going to get the death penalty,” shared Taliano. “I was praying for LWOP, ironically—it seemed like the lesser of the two. Then I go to [prison]… and my counselor says, ‘do you understand that you’re going to die in prison?’ And it hit me. It literally hit me.”
Shoemaker said she was distressed to discover that many law enforcement officers have no idea what LWOP means, “I was frustrated and couldn’t understand it, because they really did not know. I had to ask them are you guys freaking kidding me? Am I being punked? They were really, like, shocked and flabbergasted.
“I could see the confusion—they were perplexed and had mixed emotions that they could potentially be a part of giving someone ‘the other death penalty,’” added Shoemaker.
“We also needed to bring awareness to intimate partner battering,” Tammy Cooper-Garvin, told SQ News. “When I tell my story it makes me feel better and I pray that I am helping someone.
“There are many layers to my story and I get emotional when I tell my story, because I can still feel that little girl who wanted to be loved.
“I don’t regret coming to prison,” added Cooper-Garvin. “I needed to be incarcerated for that period of time to work on myself, and to show society that I was a changed woman who valued, and respected others, and also valued myself. Taliano and Cooper-Garvin both joined the Long Termer’s Organization, while incarcerated, a group of like-minded people serving LWOP supporting each other. They credit the program for helping turned their lives around.
“Prison taught me how to be a better person, it showed me how to deal with life,” said Cooper-Garvin. “I went to many self-help groups. I wanted to know what was different from me and my siblings. I knew I wanted to change, so I surrounded myself around positive lifers.
“I also knew I was a LWOP and that I had to make a life for myself. I didn’t have a good life in the world but with change I could have a life in prison, so I took full advantage of what CDCR had to offer,” added Cooper-Garvin.
With a second chance at life, the women are taking their stories and plight to Sacramento, lobbying for policy changes legislator by legislator. With support of other reform organizations such as CCWP, All of Us or None, Legal Services for Children and many others, the women are giving their time, energy and resources to change the narrative for all incarcerated and those finishing their sentences and returning home.
“We’re working on things like getting fair wages for all the incarcerated,” said Shoemaker. “We’re also trying to get the gate money raised to $1,000 (currently the funds upon release are limited to $200, unchanged for decades). We’re fighting for things that will make your conditions better in there and make your transition easier in the free world,” added Shoemaker.
CCWP hosted the “Drop the LWOP” event. Adrienne Skye Roberts moderated the affair and has work tirelessly to bring the “A Living Chance” campaign to Californians and legislators through the audio stories, portraits and postcards of the women who are still serving the LWOP sentence.
The newly released women thought they were supposed to die in prison. They felt they were held in bondage and captive to their shame and guilt, but have made that transition for success.
“If I could achieve my freedom anyone can,” said Cooper-Garvin. “It was hard work for me and it will be hard work for you also, but the pay-off is truly worth it.
“We may think people are closed minded about giving us a chance and it is just the opposite— they welcome us with our past because many see the good in us,” she concluded.
The second annual San Quentin News Journalism Guild Graduation took place in the Garden Chapel on Jan. 17. Twelve graduates from November’s class combined with this current class of 11 to celebrate finishing the six-month course.
The event honored the graduates, recognized advisors and brought attention to the impact of programs like the guild on rehabilitation.
Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, SQ News’ Executive Editor and winner of the Arnulfo T. Garcia Leadership Award, spoke about the importance of the guild.
Having worked every position from print to layout to Editor-in-Chief, Richardson reflected how words began to change his life.
“At my last prison, a guy called me pessimistic, and I wanted to beat him up—even though I really didn’t know what the word meant,” said Richardson.
Inmates across the country can thank Richardson’s curiosity and intellect when he looked the word up and realized his own talent with words.
“Words mean a lot; we communicate with each other; we all have the ability to grow. Our newspaper allows people to grow—and will continue to do so,” said Richardson.
“Our graduates—know you were journalists before you picked up a pen. Remember, if no one tells your story, who will?” Richardson said. “Please use your voice; it’s the most powerful asset (weapon) you have.”
Lisa Adams, the newspaper’s development manager for two years, called her career journey from state and federal prison “empty, until I found my niche helping others.”
Adams is collaborating with Wells Fargo Bank executive Amanda Weitman to generate philanthropic donations for the news agency. “Inside and out, we give the world access to the understanding and awareness of social reform and its impact. This news agency reduces recidivism by giving hope to the incarcerated throughout the nation,” said the philanthropic executive.
Today, San Quentin News is a leading voice for incarcerated people in the country.
San Quentin News’ editor-in-chief, Marcus “Wali” Henderson, remarked upon the journalism program’s capacity to build bridges. “(SQ News and Wall City) journalists tell stories that people are afraid to tell.”
Henderson, who used to chair the Guild, then introduced keynote speaker Tracy Brumfield.
Brumfield has transformed from “a heroin addict in and out of jail and then prison” to founder of a women’s news agency called RISE.
She inspired the crowd, speaking about her addiction, “I’m beating its ass.” For the graduates she said, “The power of words—storytelling—includes talking about our journey. I found it extremely empowering to tell my journey…Write about what you know…your testimony!”
The Department of Juvenile Justice’s Ericka Mutchler celebrated the success of the incarcerated female population in California. Mutchler gave praise to Wall City’s third edition, which featured incarcerated females.
“The women featured on the back page of Wall City were my [juvenile] clients who co-wrote articles for the edition. I am pleased to announce all of them have been released with jobs,” said the counselor.
Henderson introduced former San Francisco prosecutor Marisa Rodriquez after he spoke about the social reform symposiums at San Quentin. The latest forum with the San Francisco Police Department was a “Blue on Blue forum [which] improved communication between law enforcement and incarcerated persons. It [forums] will allow us continue to build bridges that no one else can,” said Henderson.
In 2012, Rodriquez took a suggestion from her father to visit San Quentin.
“Now, I can’t shake this place,” said the former D.A. “It [the visit] was very, very moving, and I didn’t expect that. I shared the experience with my supervisor, San Francisco D.A. George Gascon.” She told Gascon there was something very special happening at San Quentin, and he needed to go in and see what was happening himself, if we are going to change justice.
Gascon’s office then collaborated with the late Arnulfo Garcia to create the first symposium. It focused on San Francisco Community Court prosecutors’ desire to investigate what drives youth to commit crimes.
The symposium was such a success, today the forums are a core of the news outlet’s brand.
Rodriquez said after Police Chief (Del Scott) brought in his team, it led to the creation of the nation’s first Formerly Incarcerated Advisory Board. The board includes San Francisco prosecutors and formerly incarcerated men and women, many of whom had life sentences before being paroled.
CDCR administrators who ensure accuracy and analysis for SQ News include), Terri Hardy, Krissi Khokhobashvili, and Ike Dodson. They received plaques of recognition and said, “No matter what happened in your past, who you are when you come out on the other side is what matters.” Henderson also praised the group of Wall City advisors in attendance. Kate McQueen, Sarah Horowitz, Doug Levy and Dan Fost represented the magazine’s advisory board of 12.
Secretary Diaz calls for a sense of urgency for prison reforms
As they covered 5,000 miles and an ocean on an international flight on Sept. 14, CDCR Secretary, Ralph Diaz and Connie Gipson had plenty of time to consider their doubts.
“It won’t work here.”
“California is too big, too violent and plagued by prison gangs.”
Those thoughts soon gave way to excited optimism, as the pair, CDCR’s Secretary and Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) Director, bonded with senior staff from the governor’s office, formerly incarcerated people, peace officer union representatives and criminal justice advocates in a life-changing environment across the globe.
Over six days, Diaz and Gipson toured Norwegian prisons, training facilities and reentry programs, witnessing famed humanistic practices that deliver wellness, safety and empowerment to everyone involved.
The trip, funded by philanthropic programs and organized by an ambitious visionary at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), made significant impact on CDCR leadership. “The world shrunk,” Diaz explained. “I saw staff and inmates engaging in a very positive way, as if the environment belonged to all of them, not just inmates or staff.
“At that moment I saw aspects of this that can be done.”
Diaz and Gipson were joined by California Men’s Colony. Warden Josie Gastelo and Salinas Valley State Prison Warden Matthew Atchley and Captain Edward Brown. Governor Newsom [sent] representatives Daniel Seeman, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and Kelli Evans, Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary for Criminal Justice in the Office of the Governor.
Other attendees included formerly incarcerated advocates Adnan Khan (Co-Founder of Re:Store Justice) and Sam Lewis (Executive Director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition), or representatives from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
“I think it was the right people in the room, and what was so fascinating was that we all came to our discoveries throughout the week,” Gipson said. “It was really beneficial to have so many different perspectives going through the same experience.”
“We chose Norway because they have a very public health approach to corrections. They say that people go to court to get punished and go to prison to become better neighbors,” said Williams. “Every single policy/procedure and contact with a program is seen as an opportunity to bring health and well-being to people who are incarcerated, and simultaneously this gives staff and correctional officers the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better.”
To make the trip happen, Amend partnered with the community-based nonprofit organization Smart Justice to raise philanthropic funds. The biggest contributors included The Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
Advocates for all
In Norway, the only human right an incarcerated person loses is liberty. The system, including architecture and habitat, is designed to mimic the community those citizens will return to. Interactions with staff are specifically structured to champion wellness and safety.
“I believe we have segments of what is happening in Norway going on in our institutions,” Diaz said. “We have to line it up, put it on paper and give employees the permission to care about the inmate population and remind them that rehabilitation has been a part of their job since the day they signed up.”
There are clear benefits to the normalcy of the environment for staff as well as inmates. Williams said initial reports from Norway show health and life expectancy metrics for correctional staff mirror the outcomes of other citizens. She pointed to research in California that has highlighted a public health crisis among correctional employees, who are more prone to depression, suicide and poor life expectancy.
Khan, whose work at Re:Store Justice brings victims and offenders together for dialogue and forgiveness, said, “My advocacy has always been about crime survivors, bringing them in to prison, and currently/formerly incarcerated people, but when Brie talked about suicides and life expectancy of staff — that bothered me. I had to reevaluate my advocacy. Am I choosing to be the leader of a specific demographic of justice reform or an advocate for public health and humanity? Human rights and public health advocacy has to include correctional officers that are suffering and in pain.”
How Norway changed
Norway’s prison model, thriving at a reported recidivism rate of 20%, wasn’t built overnight. Advocates point to demands by the Norwegian Parliament that authorized a shift to rehabilitation and humanistic practices in the late 1990s.
Over time, accompanied by changes in sentencing laws, massive changes to all aspects of the correctional system began to take hold.
Those changes go far beyond the supportive housing units with private restrooms, couches, stocked kitchen units or even small forests in recreational yards that keep offenders connected to the world around them.
Officers interact warmly and respectfully on a first-name basis with incarcerated people and are trained much longer—two years versus CDCR’s 13-week Basic Correctional Officer Academy. They are schooled on psychology, criminology, human rights and ethics. The process includes a lot of perspective shifts, like placing an officer in the role of an offender and experiencing different custodial tactics.
“I always look at experiences, trainings with an open mind, but I admit, I was pretty apprehensive about this,” Gipson said. “Early on I felt like this was too good to be true, but the more I started to listen to their concepts and principles of normality, humanity, the more I bought in. Everything clicked, and I was just blown away. I came back excited because I feel there are a lot of possibilities for us.”
The California way
A theme understood by trip-goers and emphasized by Norwegian officials is the practicality of change.
Norway didn’t evolve into a better form of correctional care immediately, and uprooting the same system and dropping it into a vastly different population is not the solution for California.
“We are not trying to make it the Norway way or the European way but the California way,” Diaz said. “We are a unique, diverse populace with cultures within cultures, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make necessary changes.”
“We just have to make it the California way. That doesn’t mean saying no to security but yes to a different way of doing business that improves the workplace and makes a better life for people returning to our communities,” he added.
Diaz said he looks forward to collaborating with other states that strive for similar innovation and emphasized the importance of supporting an environment that both acknowledges the suffering of crime victims and delivers on a promise to create fewer victims in the future.
He joined Gipson in a presentation to CDCR wardens across the state on Nov. 6, highlighting the most impactful concepts and practices that simultaneously promote wellness, safety and rehabilitation.
“We have to look at our historic policies and ask ourselves about each one: Why? Is it humane?” Diaz said. “As policy makers it is our job to change policies and explain why, because in the end we have to create a more humane prison system.”
The insight inspires action.
“My first step is getting a workgroup together to look at what policies and procedures we have in play that escalate vs. de-escalate,” Gipson said. “I also want to look at our training and talk about giving staff the comfort to manage situations within their authority without fear of making a mistake.”
“My big takeaway is a sense of urgency to make these necessary reforms because we have witnessed positive impact for all those involved in a correctional setting and for those returned to communities,” Diaz said. “I know what can be done. I know the department’s abilities and the ability of staff to get things done.”
That’s the California way.
Be it California or Mississippi, when news of suicides, murders or riots reaches any prison population the feeling is always the same: “damn”—if it’s spoken or not. Especially if you’ve been through it or witnessed these things.
Society might think “there goes those violent monsters acting up again.” What is rarely discussed is that we are a product of the society. Most of us incarcerated and are Americans, and America is filled with double standards (we’ll get to that later) and most of the time breeds intolerance.
Black people and others are still suffering under racism, and we don’t have to go back to slavery to see this. Black people can’t BBQ, sell water or lose cigarettes without the police being called. A Black man was even arrested for eating a sandwich at a San Francisco BART transit station platform. We can’t even sit in our own homes without being shot and killed.
Have we ever talked about collective trauma? It’s not just individuals who suffer. It’s whole communities. Our immigrant community is being detained, and kids are/have been separated from their parents—OK, more trauma. Our President even ordered the assassination of a Iranian general using violence in the name of stopping violence.
Have we been raised to be intolerant against any and everyone who is not like us (on both sides)? Has violence been shown as a way to solve our problems? Is this learned behavior?
We witnessed our President say that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not get charged. Damn! That’s a criminal threat, or what we incarcerated call a “terrorist threat,” and people in here are doing three to five years, if not a life sentence, for a statement such as that.
During President Trump’s House impeachment trial started by the Democrats—more separation—Trump was alleged to have attempted to strong arm, bribe or leverage—or whatever a good word choice would be (quid pro quo)—to get the Ukrainian president to investigate his rival, excuse me, his possible political opponent, for his own advantage.
Once again, there are hundreds of thousands of people serving long sentences for attempting to do a crime. But what really was most interesting to those incarcerated was how the Republicans, Trump’s “homies” (supporters), kept touting that all the evidence against him was just hearsay. Wait, wait, wait—how many people are sitting in U.S. prisons and jails convicted on hearsay evidence? And I haven’t yet mentioned the venomous call to reveal the name of the whistleblower. Trump’s supporters came just short of calling the confidential informant a “snitch.”
When the smoke cleared Trump was impeached in the House (by his rivals) on “Abuse of Power” and “Obstruction of Justice.”
But, he was acquitted by the majority Republican Senate. Imagine that! a jury of one’s peers. I think most people incarcerated would have loved to have their friends, supporters or homies on their juries. It wouldn’t be hard to guess the outcome.
Now let’s talk about prison violence and reform. When people are sentenced to 800 plus years, what is expected? They have officially written their lives off and wonder what they have to live for or if they will ever see the streets again. Add to that, they are incarcerated in harsh and questionable conditions.
Incarcerated men and women seeking a college education face challenges due to funding restraints, a new report finds.
Funding for incarcerated college students stalled when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was enacted in 1994 and eliminated federally funded Pell grants. Student enrollments dropped 44% in one year, and 20 states reduced college courses.
The report, ITHAKA S+R (Unbarring Access) found that Pell grants cover a small percentage of incarcerated college students. The numbers could be dropping even lower.
Some prisons prioritize access to higher education based on the amount of time that person has left on his or her sentence.
Several barriers also hinder efficient higher education:
• Write ups, (Prison infractions)
• No GED or High school diploma
• Crime and conviction
• Tab test
• Length of incarceration
• No U.S. citizen and
social security number
• No one receives a Second Chance Pell grant if the applicant has any government loans in default or has not registered for Selective Service.
• Funds are suspended if the incarcerated student is convicted for the sale or use of illegal drugs.
The report said prison education programs use a “carrot for good behavior,” an incentive for those incarcerated who “behave the best.”
Despite push back from correctional officers, the report found programs have awarded thousands of Associate, Bachelor’s and even Master’s degrees across the nation since 1972.
Striving for a good education has its challenges for anyone, but for incarcerated students those trials and tribulations are greater. However, one incarcerated man has persevered and has become the first student to earn a Master’s of Business and Administration (MBA) degree at San Quentin State Prison in almost a decade.
“He is the first guy to receive that level of a degree since I started overseeing the education department in 2013,” said Michael Wheeless, the principal of San Quentin’s education department. Wheeless is in charge of handling educational tasks and the overall education responsibilities, plus keeping track of who receives AA degrees and BA degrees.
There are other outside correspondence colleges active at San Quentin, as well as the Prison University Project that offers face-to-face classes and awards Associate Degrees upon graduation.
“For an incarcerated person to achieve any accomplishment in education is remarkable,” Wheeless said.
“Since Proposition 57 was implemented in November of 2016, there have been plenty of instances when inmates have earned time off their sentences for achieving AA and BA degrees, but this is the first time under the San Quentin rules of Prop.57 that I’ve seen a Master’s earned.”
Smiling while leaning back in his chair and beaming proudly, Wheeless continued,
“I’m impressed with Mr. Johnson’s educational achievement, at having earned an MBA degree while incarcerated. It means even more to have earned it while in prison rather than being on the streets.”
However, Johnson is modest about earning the MBA during his prison stay. Although he received his bachelor’s degree while at another prison, the challenges there were much greater to overcome.
“I treated my prison time as if I was away at college,” Johnson said, “I did my time and did not allow the time to do me.”
Johnson took such courses as Managerial Accounting and Business Management along with a laundry list of other business classes– and emerged triumphant.
He maintained a 3.86 grade point average, earning “A’s” and “B’s,” grades that he could not imagine earning back in Woodland, California where he was born.
“When I was in the fourth grade I could not even read; I was like in what they call, “slow learning classes,” said Johnson. He was a late starter and said that he actually started learning after he got to high school.
“I was determined to learn, though,” said Johnson.
Other SQ residents stopped by to congratulate Johnson even during this interview, but he modestly accepts compliments on his achievements from his peers. His wish is that he can encourage other guys in prison to pursue their dreams like he did.
Johnson understands the challenges an incarcerated person can face while in prison. During his humbling six year prison experience, Johnson was not always on the right path to education. It was a life-altering experience with a family member that sparked his desire of higher learning.
“My first year in prison my grandmother passed away,” Johnson recalls, “Her name was Mary Rita Moncrif. She was my inspiration to do better. She raised me and when she passed, it pained me that I could not be there for the funeral.”
He somberly sank back in his seat at the memory. So, in honor of her memory, Johnson wanted to do something that would make his grandmother proud of him. For Johnson, education was the best way to show his appreciation to his grandmother for raising him.
Throughout his life, Johnson has been familiar with loss in many other situations. Due to alcoholism he lost his wife and other assets. “Now I know how to appreciate the things that really matter in life, like family and loved ones, not the material things, the superficial things.”
He credits his Aunt Elizabeth for supporting him financially and helping him achieve his education goals.
“Feels good to be the first one to achieve this milestone at San Quentin,” Johnson said.. “I encourage other guys to go ahead and do it, too.
“If the government would focus more on education instead of just locking people up, I believe that would help communities out there a lot better.”
The Friday after Christmas, two former San Quentin residents returned to a jam-packed Catholic Chapel to mingle with old friends and perform at the Prison University Project’s (PUP) Annual Open Mic.
“Be encouraged to write your own reality in the sense that if you want freedom and liberation, you have to find it in the confines that you have and let that open the gates for you,” Antwan “Banks” Williams said after returning to San Quentin 64 days after getting out.
Williams was joined by Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie, who got out of prison about a month before Williams did, said, “Everything I do going forward, I do it for you. The change in my life affects you. We will spread this like wild fires. We’re changing the culture from in here.”
First Watch Producer Jesse Rose hosted the event. The program opened with Gregory “White Eagle” Coates on wood flute, Timothy Young on classical guitar, Courtney Rein on violin and accompanied by Mark Kinney on keyboard.
Brian Asey and Dre’Quinn Johnson showed a short film they produced, Teaching & Learning PUP Style. PUP students talked about the impact that an educational opportunity gave them. Teachers talked about the power of education.
Poetry, spoken word and personal essays dominated the event and the comedy routines got lots of laughs.
James Jenkins’ routine on passing gas rolled the audience the most.
“Don’t go in the cell with James,” he said about the ru- mors about himself. “He’ll gas you out.”
Raphael “Nephew” Bankston rapped about life from an incarcerated person’s perspective with Tim Young strumming his guitar as accompaniment.
It’s kind of hard to see what we see, but the sun you see is the sun I see.
I see oppression and empathy being abused.
Stu Ross read an excerpt from his novel, Going Bad Doesn’t Make Men Less Attractive.
When the barefooted Ronell “Roach” Draper took the stage, he said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but I understand that’s a barbed wire fence.”
Nevertheless, the audience seemed to enjoy the humorous performance as there was generous laughter and applause as he walked off the stage.
Harold Banks read a poem, From Grape to Raisin. It’s interestingly about shifting narrative, beginning from the perspective of a child, then a mother and then a father. The poem is about the source of happiness and love and the cycle of life.
Standing with his back to the audience, Timothy “T- Bone” Hicks read “I am a Human Being.” He said that it was inspired by PUP teachers who were determined to get the students out of their cells for class.
Philippi “Kels” Kelly and Steve “Rhashiyd” Zinnamon performed a hip-hop rap that spoke truth to power from “unlikely” characters.
Andrew Grazzeny read a personal essay about his years of incarceration.
“I sleep because it is too painful to live. The sunrises and forces one more day. I find myself caught in life, like in a rip tide. I never learned to stop struggling.”
Isaiah Love read Carrots, Coffee & Eggs, an inspirational poem about self-confidence, reaching one’s potential and living one’s dreams. “It’s what I fall back on when I too in- spire to build to create,” Love said.
Wade read My Penal Reality, which described his experience in Pelican Bay Prison.
He wrote the piece more than 12 years ago as a “pretty angry” person, but “calm came over me,” he said.
Brandon Terrell gave a mo- tivational and self-confidence performance, Believe.
“If you believe deeply that there is no failure, then your belief would come true,” Terrell told the audience. He walked up and down the chapel aisle, encouraging the audience to believe in themselves and that everyone should believe in their destiny, believe that they would be successful and get out of prison.
Aaron “Showtime” Taylor performed a comedy routine that left the audience rolling in laughter as he played guitar and sang parody about being on a halal diet and eating “state bologna sandwiches.”
Andrew Wadsworth read a poem, 16 Bars, as Aaron Taylor accompanied him on guitar.
A spoken word piece, 16 Bars, addressed Wadsworth’s turbulent life that began going bad at 16 years old. He talked about becoming a dope dealer, running the streets and living a negative life. The narrative shifts to understanding what it means to be accountable for one’s actions and realizing that the meaning of life is love, not hustling, stealing and violating other people’s rights.
Anthony “Habib” Watkins read Fatherless Child. The poem was about understand- ing the power of education and literacy as well as living honor- ably and respectfully.
Richard Lathan read two poems. The first addressed the way people communicate through their actions:
Is there a way to speak with- out opening your mouth?
A young woman, who lost her life, inspired the second poem.
Gerry Sanchez Muratalla and Berny Marroquin entertained the audience with Spanish music. Muratalla’s guitar brought hand clapping and whooping with some people dancing in the aisle and a standing ovation.
Deavon Torrence read a poem, You Made It. It was about being successful and overcoming obstacles of discrimination in a racist criminal justice system.
• Raiveon “Ray Ray” Wooden read a poem about finding self-confidence while being persecuted.
• Derry “Brotha Dee” Brown’s Dancing to Praise God had the audience standing and clapping.
• George Mesro El-Cole read a fantasy piece that was extremely descriptive.
• Thanh Tran performed a hip-hop piece about moving forward in life.