For more than six years, Joe Spinelli and Carter Schwonke have spent their Friday evenings inside San Quentin tutoring inmates in math and literature and along the way, Spinelli and Schwonke have become pretty good mentors.
“Joe is a soldier in helping us in math,” Robert “Belize” Villafranco said. “He helps us to be supportive of ourselves when we get out of prison. He’s like a father figure to many.”
Schwonke, who has a strong sense for social justice, feels that access to education is fundamental to betterment.
“I don’t want to live in a country that is so divided between people with opportunities and those without,” Schwonke said as a reason for teaching in prison. She tells inmates that it’s never too late to learn how to read.
“She’s an English professor, so she wants to get the best out of us and she sets high standards,” Pedro Espinol said. “I will miss her dedication and love for teaching.”
Spinelli and Schwonke spent July 7 as their last day volunteering in the literacy program, Free to Succeed.
Spinelli, closing in on 80, is moving to a retirement home nearly 100 miles away from San Quentin, while Schwonke wants to do other social justice work.
“We need a better system than where one bad choice could lead to decades of incarceration,” Schwonke said. “We need to get smarter about sentencing,” she added. “San Quentin has taught me that I just took a tiny stab at social justice. I need to go deeper.”
James Metters has been coming to Free to Succeed for about six years.
“You have to earn Carter’s trust and show that you’re serious about learning,” Metters said. “Joe is instrumental to the group, just like Carter, but he loves to sit and do math. He will sit with any student and stay there all night long.”
Tutoring is in Spinelli’s blood. He’s already contemplating to be of service at Vacaville, “if needed.”
“It’s fair to say, San Quentin inmates take their education seriously and they are mature,” Spinelli said.
“People on the outside say to me, ‘Oh, you work with the bad guys.’ And, I say, ‘No. I work with good people who did a bad thing at one point in their lives.’ After I say this to them, I think they understand what I’m saying.”
Free to Succeed meets Monday through Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Education Department on the Lower Yard.
“Helping someone read better is like tossing pebbles in a pond, except the ripples transform generations,” said George Dykstra, program director of the nonprofit Free to Succeed.
Free to Succeed has been helping prisoners at San Quentin State Prison improve their reading skills for nearly 20 years with the aim of making students better readers, so they will earn their GED, which will allow them to enroll in San Quentin’s college program.