A year and a half after canceling all classes due to the pandemic, Mount Tamalpais College (MTC) reopened in-person instruction inside San Quentin on September 14.
Twenty classes are now starting for some 300 students, including more than 50 new college students this Fall 2021 semester.
“It feels so empowering to be back in class,” said Floyd Ray Jr., a student in the College Program since 2013.
“I really missed raising my hand and asking that question about the topic on hand.”
One and a half years ago, MTC suspended the College Program mid-semester “to reduce exposure to students, especially given that the coronavirus has spread quickly in prisons internationally,” said their letter to students on March 12, 2020.
San Quentin residents were quarantined two days later, and all programs stopped.
“At first I didn’t think it was a big deal because I thought the shutdown might only last a week,” said MTC student Jesse Blue. “But a week turned into a month, then a year.”
“Now I realize that when the College Program shut down, I shut down. My communication with all the people I’m close with stopped,” said Blue.
“It’s a bummer that we couldn’t finish, but even though I didn’t get a grade, I got an understanding. It’s not a failure—just an inconvenience,” said Blue.
“I understand why they shut it down, and appreciate the steps they took,” said Ray Jr. He was in the middle of a math course when classes were canceled. “Putting our health first meant a lot to me.”
“I regretted all aspects of the national crisis, but none more acutely than not being able to teach my MTC students in person,” said Bill Smoot, an instructor teaching inside The Q for nine years.
Even while shut out of the prison, the College Program continued its mission to support increased access to higher education for incarcerated people.
“We completed three courses from the Spring 2020 semester through correspondence in the Fall,” said Chief Academic Officer Amy Jamgochian.
Jamgochian and other MTC staff also coordinated Spring and Summer 2021 semesters, during which MTC faculty taught dozens of one-credit correspondence courses to continue college students during the pandemic lockdown when SQ residents were locked in their cells 23 hours a day.
“The correspondence coursework helped me stay grounded,” said Ray Jr. “It was a refreshing lifeline given me during a time of uncertainty.”
Other students, however, reported their inability to complete courses due to difficulty concentrating, anxiety, and health issues during the deadly coronavirus outbreak inside San Quentin.
In April and again in August 2020, the College Program sent care packages to The Q. “Thanks to support from the new warden, Ron Broomfield, we’ll be sending one to all 4,000 residents of San Quentin,” read the “Dear friends” letter accompanying the bags of educational information, hygiene products, and snacks.
“The beef jerky was delightful,” said Blue.” It’s the first jerky I’ve had in twelve years of incarceration.”
MTC also sent care packages to the incarcerated communities of Avenal, CIM, CIW, Old Folsom, CRC, and Lancaster before the year’s end.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Ray Jr. “Getting care packages was the most compassion I’ve experienced in a long time.”
One new development for students this semester is laptop computers. Thirty-five laptops will be available for use in a computer laboratory during certain classes.
Students will complete and turn in assignments with access to CDCR’s Wi-Fi and intranet, according to MTC consultant Ethan Annis.
Annis managed a seventy-computer laboratory at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael for thousands of student-users for eight years and is now coordinating the rollout of MTC’s laptop pilot program inside San Quentin.
He described the College Program’s vision of expanding the in-class program to in-cell and remote instruction for all students in the future.
“Synchronous instruction (with live video conversation) and asynchronous instruction (with prerecorded video lectures) can work together to create endless educational opportunities,” Annis said.
Jamgochian said that SQ Warden Ron Broomfield and Director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs Brant Choate were instrumental in the implementation of the laptop program. She said remote instruction could allow high-quality interactive education to continue inside prisons, even during any future shutdowns or pandemics.
“We have great plans for the future,” said Jamgochian. “Students are so ready. Faculty and staff couldn’t wait to get back, and we have many wonderful new staff.”
More than 10 new staff began working with MTC since just before the pandemic. Three of them, Academic Program Director Priya Kandaswamy, Research, and Program Fellow Kirsten Pickering, and Math Coordinator Anila Vadavalli, administered math assessments inside the newly renovated classrooms in San Quentin’s B-Building on September 1.
“We’re really thrilled to be back inside. This is where we want to be,” said Pickering. “All of us who work at Mount Tam get a lot out of working with the students.”
“We were bummed that the delta variant surge shut the prison down again, and were worried that the semester would be delayed a lot longer,” continued Pickering.
All programs inside The Q were suspended on August 14 for a couple weeks due to a few positive results from coronavirus infection tests. The shutdown delayed the return of MTC’s in-person classes another week.
“This is going to be a great semester,” said Arthur Jackson, a student since 2016 and program clerk for MTC since just before the pandemic. “The faculty and staff are wonderful to work with.”
The MTC faculty are volunteer instructors who teach a class inside The Q up to three times each week. Most are faculty or graduate students at Bay Area colleges and universities.
Returning instructor Randal Pendleton hopes “to do justice to an exciting, committed learning community.” He looks forward to another attempt at completing teaching chemistry to “a class of equally motivated students,” although it is smaller.
MTC policy now caps classes at 15 students and requires masks and social distancing in all classrooms. They report that all their staff have received the full COVID-19 vaccination and strongly urge students to do the same.
“It’s so nice to hear the teachers’ voices as they begin to teach again,” said Blue. He plans on earning his first college degree with MTC before leaving prison and attending U.C. Berkeley upon parole.