After a long pause, Berkeley students have returned to San Quentin to teach incarcerated students to read, write and solve math problems, working side-by-side with the assistance of San Quentin instructors.
Spring of 2023 marks the return of the Teach in Prison program, which the pandemic had shut down in 2020. TIP has brought hope to many incarcerated students who feel helpless in their journeys at the desks of a classroom.
“I decided to work at San Quentin because a lot of times incarcerated students are ostracized and left out of conversations surrounding education, even though they also deserve equal access to education,” said Sarai, a tutor and Berkeley student. Sarai said she believes that stakes seem higher for incarcerated students whose performance on tests and in school can drastically affect their entire experience inside the prison.
According to San Quentin’s education department, TIP began in 2000 at UC Berkeley in cooperation with the San Quentin warden’s office and the Robert E. Burton Adult School. As a “Democratic Education at Cal” program, TIP belongs to a “collective of student-run courses at UC Berkeley where students create and facilitate classes on a variety of subjects, many of which are not addressed in the traditional curriculum,” a school statement said.
The program has changed the lives of many incarcerated students who struggle academically. It has helped some students whose hearing impairments have affected their communication skills. The program has also helped students with language barriers.
Tutors like Vanessa acknowledge that the experience of tutoring incarcerated students has helped her in expanding her vocabulary in Spanish and American Sign Language. “In any tutoring session, I am there to provide some academic knowledge,” she said. “When tutoring incarcerated people, I know they will often have more to teach me about life than I could teach them about academia.”
Chris Ying now works as an officially assigned facilitator of TIP at San Quentin. He said that the program teaches him patience, especially in the presence of language barriers. It also teaches him humility by recognizing his privilege as a Berkeley student; and finally, it teaches him empathy by showing him firsthand the incarcerated students working at self-improvement.
“I learned to read better and understand academic language better,” said Juan Camargo, a San Quentin resident and student. “Being tutored gives me the confidence to explore the assignments at hand.”
For many incarcerated students who never had the chance to attend grade school in their homeland, the anxiety and fear of failure increases if they do not understand English. According to incarcerated student Moises Simon Ramirez, the Berkeley tutors have taught him to pronounce words properly, to spell and to read aloud in a class setting. Prior to TIP, he could not imagine doing any of this.
San Quentin teacher A. Stanciu said that not all of her students have reached the same level and many of them need extra support to build their confidence. Stanciu, who grew up in Romania, understands the plight of non-native English speakers. She appreciates the presence of the Berkeley tutors.
“I have definitely noticed improvement, especially an increase in self-confidence when interacting during class,” said Stanciu. “Many students are English learners who are terrified of making mistakes when speaking in front of others. Interacting with the tutors has increased my students’ language production, the use of correct grammar and increased academic vocabulary.”
According to Robert E. Burton Adult School Principal M. Wheeless, the next cycle of tutoring will commence in early September. Wheeless said that the program has the goal “to provide opportunities for the students to interact with members of the outside community in a pro-social manner to facilitate teaching and learning in our academic classrooms.”
During the spring, TIP had approximately 30 Berkeley students participating. The program expects to increase that number to 40 in September.
Tutors like Jacob recognize the many challenges that language barriers impose upon non-English speakers in classrooms. “It is not so much that people are difficult to teach, but the curriculum is not delivered with the students in mind. It’s not that the students are illiterate or can’t comprehend, it’s just that they don’t speak English,” said Jacob.
Jacob explained that one of the biggest differences between teaching incarcerated students and non-incarcerated students is that tutors keep their guard up and “don’t get overly familiar.” A fear of getting the student or the program into trouble — from something as little as getting to know the person they are tutoring — makes teaching unnecessarily stressful, he said.
TIP has not only changed the lives of the incarcerated students, but also of the incarcerated teacher’s assistants — incarcerated persons who work side by side with students and instructors.
“Nothing is as important as one’s education,” said Ethan “Dutch” Taylor, a San Quentin resident and teacher’s assistant. “For the vast majority of those incarcerated, acquiring an education is critical to their future success — or at least their future decisions will be informed ones, and they will be stripped of the crutch of ignorance.”