The Prison University Project’s (PUP) quest for independent college accreditation— and what that may mean, exactly, for the San Quentin community—inspired an active conversation at the July 29 town hall meeting hosted by PUP.
With submission of its accreditation application complete in August, PUP’s transition from its partnership with Patten University to the nation’s first stand-alone prison campus moved a step closer to actualization.
“To become independent, we’ll become a better school,” said PUP Executive Director Jody Lewen. “We’ll have the freedom to innovate—and actually improve our program through our own design.”
Patten, a longstanding Bay Area private university, was purchased in 2012 by University Now, a for-profit online college. Since then, Patten has all but closed its brick-and- mortar campus. PUP intends to move forward and make a clean break.
Without independent accreditation, however, PUP may need to partner with an established, accredited, program. The short-term backup plan includes an interim agreement with San Diego- based National University.
“If we partner with a new school, in many ways we’d be handing our program over and saying, ‘Please do this well,’ ” explained Lewen. “There’s just no way to maintain the quality. That’s the tricky thing about partnerships.”
“Turning a profit is a strong motive for schools to come in and run things inside without concerns for quality. There’s a very big push right now for for-profit schools to get into prisons.”
Lewen scheduled the town hall meeting to offer SQ an open glimpse into the accreditation process and give the community a chance to ask questions and voice concerns. PUP board members, faculty and advocates joined Lewen to offer their own insight and support.
“This is an opportunity to build an even better model, to send a message to the world that people inside prison are worthy of this type of education,” said Lewen.
“Of course there’s the fear that if we create a school whose main campus is inside a prison, then the credibility of that diploma will be diminished.
“But from what I’ve seen, the reputation of a school is fostered by the reputation of its alumni and faculty—and that greatly outweighs these other factors.”
Incarcerated PUP tutor Clark Gehartsreiter expressed strong doubts that a college di- ploma unique to San Quentin could ever be well received by potential employers and out- side academic institutions.
“I’m opposed to independent accreditation—it’s a bad idea,” said Gehartsreiter. “It will create a prison school whose name and location will follow you around on your resume well beyond your sentence.
“That dynamic alone will instantly change the narrative about you, and make the primary point of the conversation that you’ve been to prison.”
To punctuate PUP’s impact and success since its inception in 1996, six formerly incarcerated alumni returned to the prison as town hall participants—Jason Bell, David Cowan, Pat Mims, Dmitriy Orlov, Curtis Penn and Leonard Rubio.
Mims, a director for the Reentry Service Center of Richmond, California, quickly rose to address Gerhartstreiter’s viewpoint. “We’re getting away from what’s so truly exciting about independence here,” he said. “We want to give incarcerated persons the type of quality education that employers will have no problem with.
“Once you begin to walk in your own skin with that education—people start recognizing that as a strength. You’re not hiding.”
Rubio, a former PUP valedictorian, also spoke. He currently serves as Insight Prison Project’s Executive Director. “Junior colleges are start- ing to help returning citizens continue their education,” he said. “There’s a lot of help out there—so if you’re try- ing to hide your background, you’re actually limiting your resources.
“I’ve always been upfront about my past with prospective employers. Because if they don’t want me there, I don’t want to be there anyway.
“Plus, if you lie, it always comes back. The idea that you’re going to hide your background—that’s not happening anymore.”
Besides starting to review PUP’s application, the Ac- crediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) has a site visit scheduled for SQ on Oct. 21- 24. On their first day here, ACCJC representatives plan to hold a student forum in the chapel before sitting in classes and observing PUP’s everyday operations firsthand.
At the close of the October visit, ACCJC will offer an open presentation to report the substance of its findings.
“ACCJC is the gold standard for higher education in the United States,” explained Melanie Booth, an accreditation consultant helping PUP draft its application. “Accreditation ensures that college credits are fully transferable and get acknowledged by graduate programs.
“It’s grounded in a complete peer review process that determines if everything is lined up and working like a college program should be.
“Because of these rigorously high standards, every student attending an accredited program is assured that their credits will transfer—and that they’re getting a consistent education.”
PUP Program Director Amy Jamgochian expressed her own observations at the prospect of independent ac- creditation.
“The accreditation world— they want hard data, so it puts us constantly in a state of self- checking, making sure we’re providing the excellent standards we’ve promised,” said
Jamgochian. “Are we doing okay in the various ways we want our students to be doing okay?
“Accreditation’s going to keep us on our game.”
Near the end of the town hall, after raised concerns were addressed, many students offered PUP gratitude for what’s been achieved so far.
“PUP’s more than just a college. We have a personal relationship,” said Gregory Coates. “The powers that be might not agree with that, but it certainly means a lot to us.”
“The education I received in the two years I attended PUP—it enabled me to criti- cally think and write well enough to be competitive for positions where other people have a Master’s or Ph.D.,” said Mims. “Talk to your peers about why it’s so important.
“You’ll have skills, trans- ferable skills for a career— not a job, but a career.”
“I’ve never been any- where that made me feel so much like a human being,” said Darwin Billingsley. “It doesn’t feel like I’m in prison anymore. I’ve been able to open up.
“And to see so many re- turning citizens come back in—I plan on being one of those returning citizens.”