Unlocking Potential: Lessons from San Quentin: Interview with Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project

Photo taken from prisonuniversityproject.org

Photo taken from prisonuniversityproject.org

Dear Readers, Today we want to share with you an insightful interview conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, with Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project.The interview is part of The Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Education in Prison blog series, within Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project.

Jody Lewen is the executive director of the Prison University Project, an inspiring nonprofit organization that operates the College Program at California’s San Quentin State Prison. The program offers a college preparatory program and courses leading to an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts. We are so pleased to showcase Jody’s interview as a valuable Board member for Root & Rebound. Also, the Prison University Project is an inspiring community partner who not only made it possible for Root & Rebound to raise funds over the last 6 months, but one who we continue to turn to and collaborate with in improving the lives of those returning to the community from prison and jail.

We hope the interview will impact you – feel free to share with your friends and networks!

Beyond academic achievement, how do students benefit from taking college courses while in prison? 

Even after taking just a few classes, their written and verbal communication skills are much stronger. They become more confident. Their self-esteem is strengthened. They have a broader sense of what their professional opportunities might be. They are more able to negotiate complex systems and institutions, both for themselves and for their families—even from prison. They are more likely to be active in their communities and involved in various types of advocacy work. They are more engaged with their children’s education. To me, these are success stories: if the person is healthy and happy and living a productive life.

In what ways is teaching college courses inside prison rewarding for teachers? 

For teachers, prison college programs offer an opportunity to serve communities that are, almost by definition, radically excluded from quality education in the United States. It’s also incredibly satisfying to have students who are highly motivated and deeply grateful for the opportunity to go to college! The educational climate is very serious, rich, and satisfying, for both students and teachers.

What challenges do educators and colleges face when trying to implement college programs in prison? 

There are massive logistical issues: getting the students to class, getting teachers into the institution, the lack of technology, the simple fact that the institution has completely different priorities and values. You have all kinds of constantly changing constraints on what equipment and materials may be allowed inside. Pedagogically speaking, teachers who’ve taught only in conventional settings are often not prepared to serve students with such diverse learning styles; they may also not be prepared for the range of psychological obstacles that students might grapple with, particularly at the beginning—for example, self-doubt, anxiety, or shame.  

Why do you think some people are against access to a college education for people in prison? 

The biggest issue is that in the U.S., higher education is considered a luxury. A lot of people are legitimately resentful that they have not had the opportunity to get a college education, and it makes them uncomfortable—or even furious—to imagine that people in prison might. It seems unfair. There’s also the whole ideology of “deservingness.” People imagine that if you are a good person, you deserve good things and if you are a bad person, you deserve bad things. What frustrates me about this perspective is not just that it’s simplistic and moralistic, but that it essentially ignores the question of what’s in the best interest of the society as a whole. Also, Americans who have not been exposed to the prison system directly—people who haven’t been incarcerated, and have not had a friend or family member who’s been incarcerated—often have their own ideas of who is in prison and what they are like. Our culture is very invested in its global, generalized hatred of people who are in prison, and very invested in the thought of their suffering. People think of education as a stepping stone to economic opportunity and as a source of pleasure, and a lot of people don’t want anybody in prison to have either.  

What will it take to change their minds? 

People need to see firsthand the transformative power of higher education in prison. They need to be exposed to the real live faces, voices, conversations, and stories that will allow them to recognize people in prison as actual human beings. They need to hear not just statistical accounts of what happens when people in prison have the opportunity to go to school. They need to become emotionally invested in the good that it does for the individual’s community, family, and the climate of the prison.

How has the Prison University Project been successful in sharing and changing public discourse around higher education in prison? 

Above all, through publications like our journal of student writing (OpenLine), newsletters, and various special events. Strong communications materials are a way to carry the message of the humanity of the people inside to a much larger audience. If you can bring people into a prison through these kinds of materials, in my experience it’s pretty rare that they hold on to their hostility.

What kind of reentry services and resources do students need to be successful once they leave prison? 

Affordable housing! People with substance abuse and other special issues need supportive housing. And everyone needs some sort of community—they need people they can really talk to, and ask questions, and ask for help. Also, a lot of people get out and want to continue school but they don’t have the money. We need to start creating robust scholarship opportunities for people coming out.

What are the key takeaways that you think any state/prison looking to create a college program in prison needs to consider? 

Prison higher education is an educational intervention and not simply a criminal justice intervention. We do this work not simply to make the public safer. We do it because we are committed to educational excellence, and to supporting the personal, professional, and intellectual development of the individual. What you see a lot in this field are people who want to avoid saying or doing anything that might be politically controversial. They say, “The public will never go for that.” For example, they want to exclude sex offenders, or people serving long sentences, for fear of public outrage. The fact is that a high quality educational program that is open to the whole prison community has the capacity to change the entire culture of that institution. Conversely, programs that exclude academically eligible people for political reasons just build resentment, weaken the pro-social fabric of the prison, and waste precious resources. If we really want to create high quality programs that generate the greatest public benefit, we need to be unapologetically committed to inclusiveness, and we need to hold our ground. We need to keep reminding everyone: we are building a healthier democracy. We are improving public health. Our students’ lives matter. They are human beings.

Happy Friday!

– The R&R Team

From San Quentin to Berkeley—Interview with Coach on Radio 94.1 KPFA

coach, kk, st

Back in October, we wrote a Community Member Profile about Alton McSween (a.k.a. “Coach”), our professional mentor and dear friend. And if you happened to tune into radio station 94.1 KPFA at 7:00 a.m. this morning, you would have caught an extraordinary interview with Coach about his transition from San Quentin to living and working in Berkeley, Oakland and challenges and joys of reentry in the Berkeley community. He also speaks to his feelings about the 3 Strikes Law passed in 1996, his feelings on why punitive and draconian laws do not serve as a deterrent to criminal behavior, and why “the penalty should fit the crime.”

You can access the interview with Coach here: www.kpfa.org/archive/id/98844 (beginning at minute 33).

As a refresher, Coach was released from San Quentin prison in April 2013 after petitioning for release under the Three Strikes Reform Act (“Prop 36”), which passed in 2012 in California. His life passion is reentry work and criminal justice reform. Nowadays, you may find Coach at work as a Case Manager and Program Coordinator for the California Reentry Institute; volunteering at the Options Recovery Services’ Saturday car wash; or lecturing at a top-tier law school, sharing his wisdom about the California criminal justice system and reentry work alongside the California District Attorney, judges, lawyers, and other field leaders.

Lucky to know you and work beside you, Coach!

—The R & R Team

Bay Area Community Member Profile: “Coach”

Coach Pic

Coach, center, with the Root & Rebound team (Sonja, left, Katherine, right) on a beautiful Berkeley fall day.

Last week, we had the honor and pleasure of sitting down with one of our inspirations and mentors, Alton McSween, better known in the community as “Coach.” Coach got out of prison on April 4, 2013 after California passed a reform to our draconian Three Strikes Law in November of 2012, and Coach was able to petition under this reformed law, Prop 36, for release.

Background on the Three Strikes Law

In 1994, California voters enacted the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. The law imposed a life sentence for almost any crime, no matter how minor, if the defendant had two prior convictions for crimes defined as serious or violent in the California Penal Code.

According to official ballot materials promoting the original Three Strikes law, the sentencing scheme was intended to “keep murderers, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” Instead, more than half of people sentenced under the law were serving sentences behind bars for nonviolent crimes.

In 2012, California voters overwhelmingly enacted the Three Strikes Reform Act (“Proposition 36”) to address the harshest, and unintended, consequences of the sentencing law. First, Prop. 36 eliminated life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes. Second, it established a procedure for prisoners sentenced to life in prison for minor third-strike crimes to petition in court for a reduced sentence. In order to win a reduced sentence, a court must find that the prisoner no longer poses an unreasonable threat to public safety.[1]

Coach and His Journey

Coach’s first “two strikes” were residential burglaries in 1992 and his “third strike” for petty theft in 2001, a non-violent, non-serious felony. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, with his earliest possible release date as April 26, 2026.

Yet Coach did not give up on improving himself or his life circumstances. From inside prison at San Quentin, Coach was a model citizen. He was a friend, advocate, and role model for many, and was he was involved in more self-improvement work than most of us are in a lifetime. Coach took advantage of all of the programs he could and was involved in a number of wonderful groups, including: Project IMPACT (Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things; The Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) Program; The GRIP Program (Guiding Rage Into Power, a violence prevention and emotional intelligence life-skills program); and he began his training as an addiction recovery counselor through California Association of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.

It was clear from talking to Coach that he took advantage of all of the resources available to him at San Quentin so that he could build a better future for himself and a better world for his community, both inside and out of prison. And that is exactly what he has done.

Now out of prison, Coach has continued his incredible work in the Bay Area community through his job with the California Reentry Institute, an organization that he became involved with at San Quentin. CRI staff provides its incarcerated members (about 34 men currently) at San Quentin with counseling, resources to assist them with their parole hearings, and prepares the men for release. CRI also provides many forms of reentry support to its members coming out of prison, and this is where Coach does his current work in the community. Coach is now a CRI program coordinator, a reentry mentor, and transitional housing supervisor.  Coach wants to help guys coming out of prison to navigate the world, because he knows from first hand experience how scary and daunting that can be.

When the CRI men first come out, Coach picks them up at the bus or train station and is the first friendly face that many of them see. He brings the person a backpack filled with a new and clean change of clothing, toiletries, a prepaid cell phone for the month, and other essentials—a “survival kit.” Coach then accompanies the person to his housing arrangements and takes them shopping for food. Coach talked to us about the incredible moment he has with all the men he works with who get to a grocery store for the first time in years, and how excited they are to see all of the options.

In addition to his work with men reentering the community through CRI, Coach is close to completing his counseling certificates in Domestic Violence and Addiction Recovery, so that he can one day work as a counselor in these areas.

Coach also works every Saturday at Options Recovery Services’ car wash, where formerly incarcerated men have set up a small business that benefits themselves and their families. One Yelp reviewer had this to say: “The best car wash in Berkeley is in the parking lot of the Lutheran Church of the Cross by Options Recovery Services! Every Saturday, the good folks there [are] ready to wash and detail your ride. A full service car wash includes inside vacuum, mats washed, tires treated, and very friendly service. Really wonderful service! It’s only $15. But do tip generously. They are a fine group of people helping themselves and each other.”

Coach’s life passion for reentry work and helping others is clear from the moment you meet him. He is involved in so many different groups because he is hopeful that life can and will get better for the people in prison and jail and those coming out. Coach believes in creating family wherever he goes, and treats strangers and friends alike with dignity and kindness. We are unbelievably lucky to call him an inspiration and mentor. We know he will continue doing incredible things.

Coach, thank you for your wisdom and for sharing your story!

– The R&R Team


[1] For more information about the Three Strikes Law and its reform, please visit the website for the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University, the group that made this reform (Prop. 36) possible: http://www.law.stanford.edu/organizations/programs-and-centers/stanford-three-strikes-project.