They came from all over the prison and the nation. Scholars dressed in standard blue prison uniforms walked down a staircase that leads from the cellblocks, while a group of civilians hiked down a ramp that leads from a courtyard just inside the entrance to the prison to meet on the San Quentin Lower Yard for the Prison University Project’s first ever academic conference.
The conference, called Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reform: 21st Century Solutions to 20th Century Problems, was organized by Amy Jamgochian and consisted of nine panels, where teachers, lawyers, advocates, formerly incarcerated women and incarcerated scholars presented their ideas on higher education access and criminal justice reform.
“Each panel had a lot of quality,” said Judy Appel, a Berkeley Unified School District board member who attended the conference. “The PUP students who spoke had the most deep and helpful analysis into the problems and solutions. Their nuances, as a policy maker, made me think about how we should be working more with folks inside on policy solutions.”
The panels took place in separate Prison University Project (PUP) classrooms, the study hall and even the San Quentin News room. Broken into two sessions, five panels took place in the first 90-minute period, four panels in the second.
Each panel member, guided by a moderator, presented separate ideas on focused topics. They covered “Histories and Narratives of Incarceration,” “Precursors to Prison,” “The Fine Line Between Help and Harm,” “Bodies and Control, Developing Agency in the Community,” “Alternative Methods and Materials,” “Alternatives to Incarceration,” “Incarceration and Intersectionality: the Experiences and Analyses of Formerly Incarcerated Women” and “Hurdles to Re- entry.”
In the room where Precursors to Prison was discussed, Jesse Vasquez, a PUP student sat on a panel with Xenia Cox, founder of Paroled to College and graduate student at Rutgers University School of Education who co-authored Using Resilience Theory and Trauma-Informed Practice to Disrupt the School to Prison Pipeline. She flew in from New Jersey just for the conference. Also on the panel were Brita Bookser and Gabby Falzone, both from the University of California at Berkeley.
“Jesse killed it,” Adnan Khan, founder of First Watch, said. “That’s one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.”
Vasquez delivered a passionate, researched talk sprinkled with his own personal experiences in a presentation called Public Education: A Head Start or a Setup.
“The school-to-prison sewage system starts with state-mandated core curriculums and standardized testing and ends with penal statutes that criminalize ignorance and trauma,” Vasquez said. “Since children cannot identify with the academic presentation of reality, they seek an alternative. Gangs usually meet a youth’s need for identity and community.”
On panel three: The Fine Line Between Help and Harm, PUP student James King and coordinator Heather Hart gave a joint presentation about how the savior complex in prison rehabilitative programs upholds the status quo. The powerful speech made other panelists rethink their positions.
“Academics can and should be strong partners with us in facilitating criminal justice reform—we need partners who will enter prisons, work with incarcerated people to develop alternatives to incarceration and develop pathways for us to engage with outside communities,” King closed his speech saying.
“Hold on, I need a minute because I feel like you were talking about me,” one panelist said.
Nayeon Kim, an attorney and PUP instructor, considered King’s and Hart’s speeches the best she heard that day.
“It was great discussion about internal decolonization work that people should do to stay ahead of the system,” Kim said. “It called people to hold themselves accountable to true needs, spoken by people who don’t need anyone to feel bad, they need partnerships.”
The panels took a short break for lunch, where the guests were served the same thing the incarcerated men get about three times a week—boxed peanut butter and jelly lunches.
“Being here was hard for me,” said Lily Gonzalez, who spent two years in solitary confinement while incarcerated. “When I saw the peanut butter and jelly, I gagged. I knew it would be triggering, but I came because the reality I believe for myself isn’t the one I’m experiencing right now. I’m here for people in here, not because I validate institutions but because I’m willing to go through hoops to have the interactions.”
One woman visiting a prison for the first time opened up the boxed lunch, took out the bread and started eating the plain bread. When asked why she didn’t put the peanut butter and jelly on the bread first, she answered, “I thought the sandwiches were premade.”
In the second session of panels, one dealt with Incarceration and Intersectionality: the Experiences and Analyses of Formerly Incarcerated Women. The members were Venus Rountree, a currently incarcerated transgender person, Karen Shain, the moderator and three formerly incarcerated women: Kathleen Culhane, Lily Gonzalez of Revolutionary Scholars at Cal State Northridge and Romarilyn Ralston.
Ralston shared her experiences from serving 23 years at the California Institute for Women State Prison. There she enrolled in college. Upon release, she obtained two graduate degrees and works as a coordinator for Project Rebound, through which formerly incarcerated people get college degrees. She has been home for more than seven years and off parole for two.
Montrell McDuffie, a 20-year-old PUP student, teamed up with PUP coordinator Alison Lopez to present a paper on Sounding Educated: Education at a Correctional Institution about the wisdom of letting students submit papers in their own English dialects.
“As an African-American I already have negative perceptions and less of a chance at succeeding than going to prison,” McDuffie said. “Part of the reason I struggled in English was because I felt that having to write ‘grammatically correct’ was not me.”
After the final round of panels ended, the only complaint was that everyone couldn’t hear all the panels. PUP has posted a short video from the conference on their website (prison university project.org).
The conference ended with a speech called “Reimagining Justice Everywhere from the Prison to the Classroom” by Associate Professor Patrick Elliot Alexander, a teacher at Mississippi State Prison (Parchman) who wrote From Slaveships to Supermax.
Alexander, originally from Dayton, Ohio, took the job at Parchman because he wanted to get proximate to the problem. He described Parchman as a place where the men serving time wore the same striped uniforms they did during slavery and worked in the fields picking vegetables for pennies an hour. Yet the men he interacts with are scholars.
“Every day my students repeat ‘I’m a student, I’m a teacher, I’m a scholar, I am capable.’ Now imagine doing that at Parchman at the top of your lungs,” Alexander said.
After his speech, a Native American reminded the audience that Indians also suffered greatly in this country.
“You forgot one minority—the Indian. He does six times more time than the White man and more time than the Blacks,” said Hector Heredia, Native American chaplain. “When you talk about slavery, you have to remember Indians were the first slaves.”
James King closed out the conference by thanking everyone who helped make it possible and expressing hope for more to come.
“This conference was a great experience, and I’m hoping that it leads to more academics coming into prison to work with incarcerated scholars to work on solutions to incarceration,” King said.