By Juan Haines
Editor’s note: For security reasons, The San Quentin Education Staff requests San Quentin News use only the first names of the college students in this article. We have honored that request.
For more than a dozen years, students from a prestigious Northern California university have been venturing inside a state prison, tutoring inmates who do not have high school diplomas.
Each semester University of California, Berkeley, sends between 60 and 100 students inside San Quentin State Prison’s Education Department through its Teach in Prison (TIP) program.
The impetus of the program, which began in 2000, is to educate inmates in order to reduce recidivism and end mass incarceration, say its supporters. Two-hours a week, TIP has classes on campus about criminal justice reform.
“It’s the most amazing program that I’ve been involved with,” said TIP co-president, Natrina. “It taught me a lot about injustices in the prison system. Now, prisoners’ rights have become the focus of my social activism.”
“People coming from privileged positions in society don’t always question the inequalities that lead to drug use, school dropout rates or other factors leading to mass incarceration,” said TIP tutor Brenna.
“Many people in society think more about punishment than rehabilitation. But, I know that people have the capacity to change, because I’ve seen it first hand,” Natrina added.
“TIP offers a tour of San Quentin in the spring where we walk by cells and try whatever is on the menu in the dining hall,” said another tutor Erin. “When the tour got to the cells, and I was able to see how the men live, I started crying. I immediately rearranged my schedule to fit Teach in Prison, and have been with the program ever since.”
Erin said she has had complex conversations with inmates but noticed some struggle reading. “It indicates a failure in the education system,” she said. “It’s obvious the person is intelligent, but through their work, it becomes apparent that somewhere along the line, their teachers, their parents, whoever, just let them slip by.”
“One of the reasons I’m involved with Teach in Prison is personal,” Erin said. “I’ve had family members suffer some of the same experiences some of the men here have.”
“I’ve been involved with inmates since 2005, when I worked with Karos, a spiritual organization. I’ve been involved every since, said TIP tutor David.”
David said the high percentage of people in prison who have substance abuse problems are ignored by the current criminal justice system. “There is evidence that people who have these problems could be more successful, if they were initially addressed. The punitive direction does not help society as a whole. We could do a better job at intervention. Overall, I think more can be done. The amount of help is limited to the time we’re here. It would be great if there could be tutors here all the time. I think we could do more as a society.”
David said inmates who receive his tutoring appreciate the classroom presence of Berkeley students. “It’s encouraging to watch student learn something new. It is rewarding as a teacher to watch a student solve a math problem that doesn’t make sense to him at first.”
Brenna is majoring in Psychology with a minor in Global Poverty. “I think that if more people had the opportunity to work inside a prison, justice reform would be more possible.”
Inmate Jeff McAuliffe has been at San Quentin four years. He has been a teacher’s aide in the TIP classroom for about a month. He said Mr. Shimel, hired him after he passed the GED test.
“I help the students in their educational goals, McAuliffe said. “One of my teaching points is that I was in the class. If I can do it, you can.”
McAuliffe said having the Berkeley students around helps a lot. The more the better, he added. “The inmates tend to ask them for help, because it’s an opportunity for them to interact with someone from the community instead of just another inmate. Everyone is trying to better himself in the classroom.”
“Mr. Shimel is a great teacher and has a big heart,” McAuliffe added. “He tries to adhere to everyone’s learning goals, and he’s good at his job.”
“I’ve been a tutor for Mr. Shimel for about eight months,” said Steve Piazza.
Piazza said he was Valedictorian for his GED class. “I helped people in the classroom while earning my GED. When I graduated, I got hired,” he said. “The students really like the Berkeley tutors. They come from all kinds of backgrounds from around the world. The inmates look forward to getting help from them.”
Facilitating access to GEDs in the Teaching in Prison program gives students the chance to qualify for one of the prison’s many college programs.
When asked about the impact of the Berkeley students, Mr. Shimel said, “It brightens up my day. I’m walking on sunshine.”
Shimel has been teaching in the California prisons for 15 years, 10 of those years at San Quentin. As for the Berkeley students, “I like their different areas of interests. They bring a fresh perspective from around the world to my classroom, which is a good thing.”
“I like lightening the mood in a place where being hard is sometimes not the way things really are,” said TIP tutor, Shenel. “The biggest thing for me is seeing the progress in the classroom. I like seeing the progress in humanity and humility in a place where it’s often not there, is rewarding.”
“Before I went to Berkeley, I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire,” TIP tutor Shenel said. “The phrase ‘Liberation is a Praxis,’ stuck out to me, because it means action and reflection of men and women upon their world is needed in order to transform it. I realized that is what I need to do. If you are going to be on this world, you have to make the most of it, no matter where you are.
“The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge for a lot of us is a bridge that doesn’t just physically connect Cal to San Quentin. But like the class, it has been able to serve as a community connection between two groups of people who otherwise would not get to meet– and who through current legal/ political system are not intended to meet,” Erin said. “I am very thankful to work with teachers, who have been very supportive of our program.”