Twice in the last 30 days, officials who help shape prison policy have come to take a look at the work of the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.
Politics and prisons are intrinsically linked in California, so when officials from the state come to visit, prisoners take notice. The buzz of possible release of prisoners, ordered earlier this month by federal judges, heightened the anxiety of the men who were surprised by the visitors.
Steve Meinrath and Jerry McGuire, counsel to the Senate Public Safety Committee, were the first to visit. They seated themselves among a mixed group of prisoners taking an ethics class at San Quentin. Escorted by Sam Robinson, public information officer, and Jody Lewen, director of Patten University at San Quentin, the visitors got a first- hand look at students and one of their instructors, Helene Silverburg, in the midst of an engaged discussion on the difference between Kantism and Utilitarianism. The topic of discussion seemed to intrigue the visitors. As they left, they graciously thanked the instructor, as well as the men in the class, for allowing them to sit in.
“Yes, I’m the guy who was
on television this morning telling
people not to let prisoners out early”
The most significant visit came a week later when an entourage of officials converged on the same ethics class, the highest ranking being Matthew Cate, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Cate was accompanied by Elizabeth Siggins, his senior policy adviser, and Lee Seale, deputy chief of staff. Also present were San Quentin officials including: Acting Warden R.K. Wong, Administrative Assistant R. Luna, Chief Deputy Warden Vince Cullen and Public Information officer Sam Robinson and out going, CDW Max Lemon.
Secretary Cate introduced himself to the class and stated: “Yes, I’m the guy who was on television this morning telling people not to let prisoners out early.” He was making reference to the media coverage of the CDCR’s response to the recent court ruling ordering the early release of some 57,000 California prisoners over the next three years.
His comments sparked a roar of laughter from the students in the class, as well as from a few of the guests. After the officials made their introductions they sat down and listened to the instructor, Ben Boudreaux, outlining the tenets of ethical relativism to the class. There was an air of unease among those in attendance, the prisoners not knowing why the officials were there and the officials not knowing what to expect of a college class full of incarcerated men.
A student in the class, Tung Nguyen, asked: “What about the Tarzan effect. I mean how do men raised by animals (lacking morals that lead to ethics) learn proper ethical behavior?” Nguyen’s comments to the instructor gained a chuckle from the crowd, loosening the tension in the room. The rest of the classroom discussion served as an instrument, letting state officials know that the prisoners at San Quentin are very serious about obtaining an education in their rehabilitation, while the prisoners received the message that prison officials are taking notice of the significance of offering college educational opportunities to prisoners and the important role that the education of prisoners plays is the realm of public safety.
Patten University is the only on-site higher education program in all of California’s 33 prisons. Patten offers AA degrees to prisoners and has been running at San Quentin for more than 10 years. The program is privately funded by donations from individuals, private foundations, and corporations. Classes are taught by volunteers, most of whom are graduate students and faculty from UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, Stanford University, and St. Mary’s College. For more information on Patten University or if you would like to enroll, send a request for interview via institutional mail to Jennifer Scaife.
Information is also available @ www.prisonuniversityproject.org