For the past four years, Jennifer Scaife has become a fixture in San Quentin inmate education, enhancing the lives of some 1,500 students and generating some $100,000 worth of donated textbooks.
“I certainly have the sensation that the work I’ve done barely scratches the surface – there are just too many people in prison with too many needs for me to feel truly effective,” she said in an interview.
“People here tell me every day that I make a difference, so I believe them. But really, I think that one can only make a difference if others are open to doing things differently. Any differences I’ve made I attribute to the individuals impacted by my efforts, because that shows that they were doing some very important work themselves.”
On June 25 Scaife bid farewell as the program coordinator for San Quentin’s Prison University Project, run by the privately funded Oakland-based Patten University.
Scaife began volunteering as an English instructor in 2005. The following year she replaced Nicole Lindahl, the previous coordinator left to work in New York.
At the June 24 graduation, Jody Lewen noted that Jennifer facilitated the donation of about $100,000 worth of text books, answered about 90,000 e-mails, walked through the entrance gates about 4,000 times, spent about 960 evening inside the institution, carried in all school supplies including about 15,000 notebooks, taught about 240 people and edited hundreds of papers.
“I think what drew me toward working inside a prison in the first place was a kind of transgressive curiosity: I wanted to go where most ordinary people didn’t want to go,” she said. “And because I’d been in a prison once before (in Virginia) and had such a positive experience there, I was completely unafraid of entering San Quentin.”
What made you decide it was time to move on?
For the last year and a half, I’ve been considering all the possible ways – in addition to working with the college program – that I could make an impact on the state of corrections in California. I’ve learned such a huge amount about this field in the last four years that I feel I can now go somewhere else and leverage that knowledge to gain more insight and continue making change happen. So I guess what I’m saying is, I’m leaving now so I can do more, but this time from the other side of the gate.
What do you plan to do with yourself after you leave?
I’ve accepted a position with the Reentry Council of San Francisco. The purpose of the Reentry Council is to coordinate local efforts to support adults exiting San Francisco County Jail, San Francisco juvenile justice out-of-home placements, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities, and the Federal Bureau of Prison facilities.
What did you find most surprising about San Quentin?
The old and crumbling infrastructure. The vast number of people serving life sentences. The unpredictable and yet mundane nature of prison life. The nonsensical (at least from an outsider’s point of view) rituals surrounding racism and racial segregation inside prison. The indomitable optimism of some of the men who live here.
What personal stereotypes about the men in San Quentin were shattered once you got to know the place?
Jonathan Simon, a professor at UC Berkeley who gave a lecture here last summer about mass incarceration, has written about the commonly held stereotype that all prisoners are young, body-building, volatile men. Looking back, I think I must have bought into the first part of that stereotype: I was astonished to realize how many elderly prisoners there are in the system.
What will you miss most about your work in SQ?
I will miss sharing in the camaraderie that springs up among people surviving this experience. There’s an intensity and quality of human interaction here that I haven’t witnessed anywhere else.
What are your hopes for the future of education in CDCR?
I hope that funding for quality educational and vocational programming inside CDCR institutions can be made a priority. And if that does not come to pass, I hope more community-based organizations step up to take on that responsibility.
How does offering prisoners the opportunity to earn college degrees benefit society?
(It) reminds us all that people everywhere deserve the chance to grow and change. But in a more practical sense, people in prison remain connected with family members and loved ones on the outside, and transfer knowledge and motivation to others to become better educated. Most people currently in prison will leave one day; the more skills they have at the time of their release, the more options they have for getting meaningful work and supporting themselves.
Since spending time here, has your interpretation of justice changed?
I know scores of men here at San Quentin who want desperately to give back to the communities in which they caused harm years ago. I think that my ideal version of justice would include providing the opportunity for people in prison to give back meaningfully and visibly to the individuals or communities they’ve damaged
What do you think people should know about San Quentin that they generally do not?
Outsiders should know that there are 32 other prisons in California besides San Quentin, and all of them need the help and influence of volunteer programs. I think people tend to flock to San Quentin because it’s famous and because it’s accessible, but the consequence is a concentration of resources here that are just as badly needed elsewhere.