San Quentin’s community college has unveiled a “Freedom Wall,” represented by 42 pictures of formerly incarcerated alumni. It adorns a wall entering an education building with the goal of inspiring and encouraging residents to further their education and find success on the outside.
Nearly 100 people gathered July 23, 2023 to witness the unveiling of the collage of photographs depicting a continuing community of higher learning, of boundless potential, hope, and restoration.
Mt. Tamalpais College, formerly known as the Prison University Project, offers in-person teaching to residents of SQ who can earn an associate degree. Just as importantly, their faculty and staff have created a culture of community and connection through education — inside and outside of the prison.
“The [freedom] wall is a testament to the transformative power of education, not only mending lives but mending communities,” said resident and alum Angel Alvarez. “Let it also stand as a reminder of our commitment to empower, inspire, and elevate one another, embracing education as a catalyst for change.”
The college program played a significant part in Alvarez’s life for years, accelerating his rehabilitation and recovery through the knowledge he learned from his classes.
Formerly incarcerated Corey McNeil, an alum and associate for Mt. Tam, opened the presentation by acknowledging how the college provides everything students need to succeed.
Emcee Henok Rufael thanked faculty and staff as well as residents Carl Raybon and Arthur Jackson, the college’s clerks who helped make things happen daily for the students.
Rufael, a resident of The Q, came up with the idea for the Freedom Wall as way to honor students who persisted in their journey to earn a degree through Mt. Tam. He also talked about the roadblocks and challenges.
“Sometimes it gets difficult,” Rufael said, encouraging students to stay focused. “No matter what we do today, this wall can and will be you.”
Alumni spoke to attendees about how Mt. Tam influenced their pursuit in education.
Troy Dunwar described how his journey through Mt. Tam helped him realize there is more to life than substance use and stealing. His encouraging words highlighted the value of the education at Mt. Tam, including making use of the college’s computer lab.
Dunwar paroled in 2021 and said coming into the parking lot was not easy as it triggered mixed emotions. But he said the event was not about him, it was about those whom he loves who are still inside.
As for life on the outside, Dunwar stressed he faces challenges, whether with self-care or time management. “The journey is not easy. I encourage you to keep on going,” he said.
“Mt. Tam is not about the place, it is the people,” said paroled alum David Le. He discussed the importance of making connections with people when you are inside so that when you leave they can be a part of your support network. “Here today, I am a resource for you. If you need anything, I am here for you,” Le said.
“We each have our own journey, it gets ugly and hard, but it gets better,” commented former SQNews photographer Eddie Herena.
The 2017 graduate talked about how life comes at you fast and you need a plan. “Stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize, because it’s real,” Herena said.
Dr. Wendy Martinez, Mt. Tam’s educational student adviser, read a poem by Maya Angelou, and Rufael played a piece on the violin.
Incarcerated alumni also shared sentiments on how important the college community is.
John Levine explained how the college helped him feel more comfortable by offering a similar educational experience to that of Cal State-Fullerton, where he went to school prior to his incarceration.
“Mt. Tam faculty and students embody inclusivity; I learned to embody those principles,” Levine said.
First-time visitor to the prison, Seemay Cho, was impressed with the immense courage and openness of the people in SQ. She observed that everyone seems to be taking advantage of their opportunities and how “the community really cares for each other.”
After the alumni spoke, staff member Corey McNeil and resident Wilbert Frank pulled the curtain to unveil the photos.
Le said he was honored to be part of the unveiling. He shared how Mt. Tam helps to manifest community at The Q and how the wall commemorates the presence of this community.
“The wall was a way to validate community in a physical aspect,” he said.