Experimental classroom integrates free and incarcerated students
A group of University of San Francisco students spent part of their fall semester in a classroom at San Quentin State Prison. They were taking a philosophy course alongside incarcerated students at the prison’s onsite campus — Mount Tamalpais College. It was an eye-opening experience for both groups.
“The most thoughtful and dedicated students I have ever been lucky enough to have class with. Their dedication is beyond anything I’ve experienced, even at my institution where people pay $50-75,000 a year to attend,” said USF student Dana Baskett.
“A once in a lifetime chance to be on the same level as students from a great university — to be judged and graded equally by the same professor — that’s truly amazing,” said Mt. Tam’s incarcerated philosophy student Ben Shurha.
The students studied side by side in Mt. Tam’s Philosophy 271 class taught by Dr. Jennifer Fisher. The course introduces students to some of the world’s great philosophers including Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls, Held, Mills and others.
For most of the USF students, attending the course provided their first look inside a prison and their first close contact with incarcerated people.
Anais Offley noted that the manicured garden areas at the prison’s entrance are “strikingly reminiscent of USF.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said fellow USF student Savannah Perry. “So the scariest part was lack of knowledge. That exact lack of knowledge perpetuates stereotypes and biases about incarcerated people.”
The enthusiastic response of their incarcerated classmates soon reassured the USF students.
“The media portrays prison as unwelcoming to a group of privileged students; to my surprise they were extremely welcoming, more so than any [other] classroom I had been in,” said Will Murphy.
Sandy Yan praised her incarcerated classmates. “It felt [as if] I was in a normal classroom. They were engaged and so kind to us.”
As the class progressed, fresh perspectives began to take shape among the visiting students.
“The level of engagement impressed me—every class. I’ve studied philosophy the past four years and it’s a genuine pleasure to see the application of philosophical texts in the lives of Mt. Tam students,” said Perry.
Dr. Fisher, who has volunteered at Mt. Tam since 2011, invested much time and effort in laying the groundwork for the integrated classroom.
“I worked with administrations from USF, Mt. Tam and CDCR for two years to establish this class setting. Student visitation approvals were finalized in September,” said Fisher.
On Sept. 6, in anticipation of the arrival of the guest students from USF, Fisher introduced her incarcerated Mt. Tam students to the curriculum the two groups would have in common.
“Social Contract Theory, as a basis of philosophy, shines a lens on our current society,” Fisher said. “This semester you will sharpen that lens with students from the University of San Francisco.”
Dr. Amy Jamgochian, Chief Academic Officer of Mt. Tam, expressed her appreciation for the accomplishment. “We’re thrilled to see this course in action, trying to expand the inside/out model with one of our veteran professors,” said Jamgochian.
Two Covid quarantines of the incarcerated students interrupted the semester, but the coursework continued via correspondence with the quarantined students.
USF students provided research assistance to their Mt. Tam cohorts to ensure that both groups had equal access to resources.
Students wrote a 2,000- word critical analysis related to Social Contract Theory, and presented their findings in a five-minute presentation.
According to the class syllabus, one aspect of the integrated education experiment was to further a USF vision of developing leaders who will fashion a more humane and just world. Remarks by participating USF students reflected the thoughtfulness that the experience provoked.
“I am a supporter of social reform and intrigued by restorative justice as a more humane alternative. I don’t know the exact solution, but there has to be a better option,” said USF student Emma Grant.
Fellow USF student Jack Li said, “It’s interesting hearing their [incarcerated] view on how social contracts should be constructed since they come from unfortunate backgrounds.”
USF’s Jade Cao reflected on long-term incarceration, “Should people really be punished their whole life just because they made a mistake?”
Anais Offley noticed that the restricted movements of the incarcerated “emphasized the dehumanizing nature of the whole system overall. It’s not a place where humans belong.”
San Quentin’s Mt. Tam students welcomed the opportunity to make an impression on the students from USF. “What we changed was the mind of 15 brilliant future leaders. They got to see what social reform is all about,” said Mt. Tam student Mike Nickerson.