For the first time in history, an independent, fully-accredited college exists inside a prison.
Mount Tamalpais College (Mt. Tam), located on the grounds of San Quentin State Prison (SQ), was formally accredited as a two-year college by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Inside Higher Ed reports.
“The idea of becoming an independently operated and accredited institution started out as a pipe dream,” Jody Lewen, president of the college, told reporter Sara Weismann in February.
“Becoming accredited as a junior college located solely inside a prison feels like an important turning point in a society that seldom sees education as a human right or incarcerated people as humans,” Amy Jamgochian, Chief Academic Officer, told Natalie Hanson of the Marin Independent Journal.
“To be part of, and contribute just a little bit to, this historic moment in higher education is truly a blessing,” Arthur Jackson said during an interview. Jackson is an incarcerated person employed as a clerk for Mt. Tam.
Carl Raybon is also an incarcerated person employed as a clerk for Mt. Tam. “This is an honor for me. I plan to continue working hard as a student and as an employee to help make MTC a successful college.”
Mt. Tam is the only accredited, independent liberal arts college in the country that operates its main campus out of a prison. The college offers a general education Associate degree program and a college preparatory program that teaches students writing and math skills.
Lewen started teaching at the Prison University Project (PUP) in 1999. For decades PUP operated as an extension of Patten University in Oakland, California.
Lewen said that there are also no plans to have a Bachelor’s degree program for students who complete their AA [Associates] degree. “It would be quite a while before we could do something like that. We have a long waiting list of students who need their AA degree right now.”
Lewen’s primary focus is to provide students with better access to technology and library resources. “We have a new director of technology who will be helping us improve in these areas.”
The second thing Lewen said she is focused on is improving the quality of student support services that are available.
At least 3,731 students have taken courses over the years. While the prison can hold a population of 4,000 prisoners, the college can only serve several hundred a semester.
Michael Moore started as a student with PUP and now attends Mt. Tam. “Having all these volunteer teachers come in from these prestigious colleges like Berkeley and Stanford makes me feel I’m getting a top notch education,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting my degree not from a prison, but from a real college.”
The news of Mt. Tam’s accreditation is also being widely celebrated by San Quentin and other departmental staff.
“The students of Mt. Tam experience an amazing high-quality education,” Ronald Broomfield, warden of San Quentin, said in a press release. Graduates leave the college with knowledge and skills essential to becoming productive citizens. With an increased worldview comes increased possibilities and hope for a better future.”
“One of the hallmarks of the prison is that students can leave with a free Associate degree, and the program has led many people to request to transfer to San Quentin,” said Lt. Sam Robinson, public information officer.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, incarcerated people who participate in college programs have a 43 percent lower recidivism rate than their peers.
Shannon Swain, Superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said these programs also increase morale among the incarcerated. “It’s really amazing, because all of a sudden, you have incarcerated folks that are more mature, they’re focused on their recovery, they’re focused on their future, and it influences the people around them,” she said, according to Weissman.
Many of the students at Mt. Tam now wonder if this accreditation means their campus will be expanded. Mt. Tam currently has the capacity to serve only 10% of SQ’s population. That averages out to 300 students per semester.
“There are currently no plans to expand the campus,” said Lewen.
“Making the decision to become accredited meant that we would be held to the same standards as main campuses typically are, as schools as a whole are,” Lewen told Inside Higher Ed reporter Sara Weissman.
This year students are accessing laptop computers for the first time. They have a computer lab set up in Mt. Tam’s Learning Center.
“We eventually hope students will be allowed to use laptops in their cells. CDCR is surprisingly supportive of this idea,” said Lewen. “But we don’t want laptops to be an alternative to in-person education.”
Mt. Tam is funded by private philanthropy, so classes, textbooks and supplies are provided to students for free. Lewen doesn’t see the college accepting Pell grants anytime soon.
“Our current plan as an accredited institution will be to continue accepting private funding. We would accept government funding if there were no strings attached, but government funding often comes with strings attached.”
Cory McNeil paroled from San Quentin last year. He graduated and now works for Mt. Tam. He sees the college as a school that is ever-growing and evolving.
“This is our college now, all of the people who built this together. Now we can say that this is ours,” McNeil told Hanson.