By Aly Tamboura
Judith Puchner Breen, beloved San Quentin volunteer whose Video Literacy Project and passion for teaching touched the lives of many prisoners, died Jan. 17.
Breen earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her extensive career teaching English literature began at Temple University in Philadelphia and finished at San Francisco State University, where she taught from 1969 to 2006. After retiring from public teaching, she brought her smiling personality and instructing experience to San Quentin through the Prison University Project.
“The word on the yard was Judy Breen was a tough teacher,” said Bobby Evans, former student and Video Literacy Project coordinator. “With Judy, her students knew there was impartial treatment – a student is a student, no matter where you are or what your situation.”
Indeed, Breen was known for her toughness in grading English papers as well as for her devotion to spreading literacy throughout the prison population. Her passion for teaching and her understanding of the power and freedom found in literature made the men at San Quentin perfect subjects for her empathy and unique style of teaching.
Breen could be just as tough as she was compassionate. She would hand out books to prisoners with the expectation that they would complete the books – no exceptions, no excuses – and have well-thought-out responses.
This passion for commandeering prisoners and rousing them to read sparked her creation of the Video Literacy Project. Breen interviewed prisoners on video about their experiences after completing a book-reading assignment. The interviews were then played on the San Quentin institutional television channel for viewing by the entire prison population.
“Her time spent at San Quentin was in many ways the most meaningful work of her life,” said Molly Breen, one of her two surviving daughters.
When Breen was not teaching, she was an avid bird-watcher and gardener, according to her family.
“It is no longer a mystery why we became such close friends. I did not know of her love for birds and gardening,” Evans said, after learning of Breen’s passing. “I too get so much from gardening and the animals it attracts.”
After Breen departed from her volunteer work in 2011 due to health issues, Evans began a beautification project, planting flowers and other plants around the San Quentin education complex where Breen spent her time teaching. After the warmest January in California’s recorded history, the plants in the garden were in full bloom the day Breen passed.
For many of the men at San Quentin, the spirit of Breen will live in the garden, the legacy of the Video Literacy Program she created, and the world she opened up to them through her promotion of literacy.
“Judy is a friend, and we love her with warm memories of her presence here with us,” Evans said. “She was a powerful influence in her home, her career, and here at San Quentin. She would always ask, ‘What can I do?’ I would respond, ‘Judy, being here with us is doing enough. You taught classes, created the Video Literacy Project, and talked to the men.’”
Breen is survived by her two daughters, three grandchildren and five beloved nieces and nephews.