Prison advocates and educators who believe in the benefits of classes held on prison grounds are seeking to revive a program that once brought Harvard students into prisons to learn desk-by-desk with incarcerated students. San Quentin already has similar programs.
“By creating opportunities for Harvard students to learn with and from students in prison, we demonstrate a commitment to transformative education, education that is rigorous and reckons with questions of justice and equity,” Kaia Stern, co-founder of the Harvard Prison Studies Project, said in a Harvard Gazette article by Jill Radsken.
At a recent conference held at Harvard, formerly incarcerated students, activists and academics met together to discuss the future of prison college programs.
In two Massachusetts correctional facilities, incarcerated men and women learned alongside students from Boston University from 2008 to 2013.
Stern hoped the conference would lead to reestablishing the integrated classrooms program she started with Harvard Professor Bruce Western, according to the Harvard Gazette article.
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hinton, Stern and visiting scholar Garrett Felber organized the conference called Beyond the Gates: The Past and Future of Prison Education at Harvard.
“The world looks a lot different from the vantage point of a prison”
Felber founded Liberation Literacy with community members and incarcerated students at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Oregon in 2016.
“People who live and work in prisons know that education changes culture, reduces institutional violence, and interrupts intergenerational cycles of incarceration,” Stern said in the Harvard Gazette.
At San Quentin State Prison in California, UC Berkeley journalism students receive credits for entering the prison to help incarcerated men write, research and edit stories for the San Quentin News (SQ News).
William Drummond, a professor of journalism for 34 years, started the program in 2012 after being asked to support the newspaper by SQ News senior editor Juan Haines. Haines was in a Prison University Project journalism class taught by Drummond at the time.
Drummond said he noticed that the prison newsroom was a throwback to journalism basics. In society, they don’t have “real” newsrooms anymore and the focus of journalism is more about pursuing tech and digital and less about original journalism—editing and critical thinking.
“I thought this would be a chance to take students into an environment that is very much brick and mortar journalism—no distractions, no hotlinks and no worry about how many clicks,” Drummond said. “I thought my students would benefit from working side-by-side with a reporter.”
Drummond also mentioned that taking the journalism class at San Quentin gives his students perspective.
“Given their backgrounds, they would never have this experience,” Drummond said. “The world looks a lot different from the vantage point of a prison.”
Ahna Straube, a 28-year-old UC Berkeley student majoring in political economics who is in the San Quentin journalism class, said, “I think I’ve learned more here in terms of having actual experiences. In a classroom, it’s a lot of theory but not real-life experiences.”
Straube appreciates the lack of distractions—there are no cellphones allowed inside the prison.
She doesn’t fear coming into a correctional facility. “I feel more comfortable here than I do on the Berkeley campus,” Straube said.
One of Drummond’s earlier students, Pendarvis Harshaw, was so inspired by Watani Stiner, an older man he met in the program in 2013, that Harshaw included him in his book, An OG Told Me.
Drummond has won awards for his journalism work at San Quentin, including the 2015 White House Fellows Foundation and Association award called the John W. Gardner Legacy of Leadership Award; and the Leon A. Henkin Citation for Distinguished Service 2016-2017.
Another program called Bridges to Universities reverses the integrated classroom model by using prepaid calls and a PA system for incarcerated people to give lectures at college campuses.
From prison, Emile DeWeaver, co-founder of Prison Renaissance, used the method to give lectures at both Hampshire College and the University of San Francisco.
“We need both models,” DeWeaver said. “There’s a limited number of people that can come inside a prison. Technology allows incarcerated people to show up on college campus on a bigger scale.”
There are plans underway for DeWeaver to give more guest lectures at Stanford and UC Irvine.