“We love you MTC students! See you in the New Year”
by Juan Haines, Edwin E. Chavez, and Michael Moore
The changing nature of COVID-19 keeps prison programs in limbo. The latest change comes from a new variant, Omicron. It stopped San Quentin’s college program from holding its Christmas Eve open mic event.
The last open mic held by Mount Tamalpais College (MTC) was 2019. Then, it was known as Patten University.
The long-standing annual event has featured incarcerated students telling stories, reading poetry, performing spoken word. There’s dancing and singing — like a community talent show where everyone is a winner.
It was under those circumstances that MTC President Jody Lewen found a way for students and teachers to come together safely and celebrate the holiday season.
On Dec. 21, two small ceremonies took place in the prison’s Education Department. Masked students and teachers wrote messages on a large banner designed by San Quentin artist Bruce Fowler.
Lewen wrote, “Beloved MTC students: May you one day realize the incredible blessing that you are to everyone around you. With mad love and respect, Jody.”
MTC clerks Arthur Jackson and Carl Raybon handed out MTC bracelets and stickers. News briefs about MTC students were also passed out.
Richard “Rock” Lathan, who’d performed at numerous open mic events, sat quietly and worked on new poetry for old friends, while history teacher Ian Sethre and MTC Chief Academic Officer Amy Jamgochian mingled with students.
“This is a holiday celebration for the end of the first semester back,” Jamgochian said. Later, she wrote on the banner, “We love you MTC students! See you in the New Year, Amy J.”
MTC administrator Kirsten Pickering watched as a student meticulously highlighted a fish on a banner the size of a large beach towel.
“These are the colors of a fish when it eats lots of plastic,” the artist would say to folks who’d watch him fill in the colors.
Camille Buchanan, a math tutor with MTC since 2019, socialized with other teachers and students. Her specialty is tutoring those with learning disabilities.
“I have to figure out how to teach them; many of the incarcerated students fall into this category, while some have anxiety about math itself. That’s common,” Buchanan said. “As a tutor, I can understand their learning patterns in ways they didn’t understand before.”
Buchanan commented that San Quentin students seek their education and want to be in school, in contrast to students in the free world who are forced to go to school.
“To come to an environment where people choose to learn is special,” Buchanan said.
Kai Bannon, 40, said that San Quentin is unlike any other prison he’s been housed at before.
“There’s a real belief that rehabilitation is happening here,” Bannon said. He recognized the value of interacting with students in a classroom setting.
“So much of college is in conversations with other people,” Bannon said. “With education, there comes resiliency. It allows you to relate your life to others.”
Bannon is on the MTC waiting list. He said he came to decorate the banner and read some of the messages.
“They were moving,” Bannon said. He wasn’t at San Quentin during the pandemic lockdown, but said, “You can’t look at the banner without feeling something about the people who went through it.”
By Juan Haines, Edwin E. Chavez, and Michael Moore