San Quentin is unique among California’s 33 adult penal institutions. Other prisons do not offer anywhere near the number of programs that San Quentin does. Many programs primarily function due to the steadfast efforts of hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers are a valuable contribution whose experience comes at no cost to the state beyond custodial supervision.
There are individuals who, for reasons of the heart, are inspired to seek out ways to make a difference in the lives of others. At San Quentin, there are many such volunteers, each with a story to tell. One such individual is Jack Lieberman, 66. Jack has been teaching inmates at San Quentin for more than a year. He volunteers as a shop math teacher for both the Vocational Machine Shop and Vocational Sheet Metal programs. He also teaches pre-calculus to inmates through the Patten University Project, the prison’s on-site college program.
HOW DO I DO THIS?
“I decided to do this because I find teaching incredibly rewarding. I called an old friend who had been volunteering at S.Q. and asked him, ‘How do I do this?’” Lieberman said. “After one month of being a volunteer I realized inmates are just like me. One wrong move and it could be me behind the wall. So my goal is to help out those few I can by trying to make a difference in their lives through education.”
Lieberman is energetic, animated and sometimes funny. He has a teaching style that makes understanding even the most complex equations comprehensible to the most-challenged students. His background gives him a deep well of experience to draw from. He built custom home additions as a contractor, he owned a stained glass restoration business on the East Coast for 12 years, and spent close to 20 years as a computer software engineer.
He also taught middle school students Industrial Arts and English as a Second Language at Tamaulipas Adult School for six years. The latter he says was rewarding because of the improvements he was helping to bring about in students’ lives by teaching them a useful skill and helping to build a sense of community among them.
Lieberman says of teaching at San Quentin, “Math is so important in just about everything you do, especially working in the fields of sheet metal and machine tooling. I teach geometry and trigonometry from a life skills point of view, focusing on practical applications. I also teach good old arithmetic because that is the foundation!”
He also discussed his observations of the California prison system as a volunteer teacher, taxpayer and social advocate. “People on the outside are curious about inmates,” he stated. “They ask why I volunteer to teach. After they find out these men have the ability to grasp higher math, this tends to break the stereotype they have of whom incarcerated men really are.”
Lieberman further stated, “I expected a certain amount of dysfunction in the prison system, considering the state’s 70 percent recidivism rate. I was astounded and flabbergasted at the wastefulness of the prison system. The colossal amount of punishment meted out by the state is unparalleled. Most reasonable people from the outside who spent a few months volunteering would soon realize that the unconscionably long sentences being served by some inmates do not protect society. They only feed a system that uses taxpayer dollars to perpetuate itself.”
$11 BILLION BUDGET
Lieberman did agree, however, that some individuals absolutely needed to be separated from society. Yet he found it difficult to identify where the state’s $11 billion annual corrections budget was being spent on rehabilitation and the prevention of recidivism.
He said the state’s administration continually puts pressure on to restrict access to, or actually close down, inmate programs in the vocational education department for such trades as plumbing, landscaping, electrical and carpentry as “not viable.” He said this is contrary to evidence of their success rates on recidivism.
“The truth is it costs me, as a taxpayer, a great deal more to keep sending men back to prison over and over rather than investing in programs that keep inmates from returning to prison. The cost is now $59,000 per year per inmate, I think,” said Lieberman. “The state is broke, which angers me in the first place. And politicians continue with the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and continue to shovel money into a system that does not work. It only makes sense to educate.”
— Dwight Krizman contributed to this story