Sherman Newman, an incarcerated man, is both a student and a teacher at California’s Mount Tamalpais College (MTC), a liberal arts college in San Quentin State Prison. He is one of the thousands of people who have attended MTC, the only accredited, independent liberal arts college in the U.S. that operates its main campus out of a prison.
Formerly known as the Prison University Project and Patten University, MTC has provided free education to incarcerated people at San Quentin for over 20 years, officially receiving accreditation in January 2022. San Quentin—California’s oldest prison—is infamous for many reasons, including its high death row population and recent botched pandemic response that led to the death of 28 incarcerated people. In recent years, it has been applauded for its media center, education opportunities, and overall shift toward rehabilitation.
Studies show that educational programs in prison often correlate with lower recidivism rates. Research funded by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance found that incarcerated people who participate in college programs have a 43% lower recidivism rate than their peers. However, MTC Chief Academic Officer, Amy Jamgochian said the college doesn’t exist to reduce recidivism rates. Rather, MTC is grounded in the belief that every person, regardless of incarceration status, is deserving of a quality education.
“There is this assumption that a prison education is a dumbed-down version of ‘real’ education,” said Jamgochian. “That is absolutely inequitable; it would be incredibly patronizing to lower standards for incarcerated people.”
Hundreds of volunteers make up MTC’s faculty, with many of the professors hailing from neighboring universities like the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. In the last year, MTC began extending some of its teaching positions to incarcerated people.
“There is no way to generalize what incarcerated people want to study. We have politically conservative and progressive students and some students who simply don’t want to be thinking about incarceration all the time. We’ve even had students request Sanskrit classes,” Jamgochian said. “We have to acknowledge the breadth of expertise and interest inside prisons—too many [people] make assumptions about what [incarcerated students] want.”
For nearly a year, MTC students have been invited to submit proposals for extracurricular workshops that they want to teach. Though these workshops are not for credit, MTC’s administration said it takes them just as seriously as other classes, reviewing the proposed syllabi and prospective instructors as they would for an accredited course. The extracurricular program has led to at least six new courses, all of which have been extremely popular among MTC students.
“It’s been very exciting to see the vast array of interest,” said Jamgochian.
Lee Jasper, a professional musician, currently teaches a class on music theory. Sounds of bass guitar emanate from his classroom, luring in other music enthusiasts.
“I played with a band while I was in the U.S. Air Force,” Jasper said, noting that he later taught a supplemental master guitar program for students at the University of California, Davis.
Jasper’s music lessons would normally cost hundreds of dollars. At San Quentin, he offers them for free.
“My rehabilitation demands that I be in service to my community,” he said. “I want to make my knowledge and abilities available to [all my students] to help improve their skills.”
Jasper’s workshop begins at the basics and ends with students being able to “read, write, compose, and discuss complex melodic theory,” according to his syllabus. One of his students, 68-year-old Ammen Shinti, has played music since he was four.
“Being involved keeps me sharp,” said Shinti. “I also like to nurture new talent and show the world how awesome we [incarcerated people] are.”
Some workshops at MTC allow for co-teaching opportunities. Kelton O’Connor and Arthur Jackson, the latter of whom is also an MTC employee, currently teach a workshop together on diabetes justice. In their class, students sit in a circle to discuss the intersection of food and environmental justice.
“This class is designed to encourage people to start advocating for solutions to global warming,” said Jackson. Outside of class, Jackson and O’Connor also advocate for more fresh food in prisons. “A lot of what we eat, especially meat, contributes to destroying the ozone layer,” Jackson said.
MTC workshops also provide an educational space for incarcerated students and teachers to process traumatic experiences. Harry C. Goodall’s course, “Maturing In Modern Times: Overcoming Educational Trauma,” helps incarcerated students develop their emotional intelligence to uncover, understand, and overcome their educational trauma. Educational trauma can stem from being bullied by teachers or students, having low self-esteem and grades, and other harmful academic experiences due to behavioral issues, problems at home, or learning disabilities. For many incarcerated individuals, these experiences defined their early education. Goodall’s course helps students move past stigmas around learning disabilities and regain confidence and control over their education.
MTC’s extracurricular courses coincide with the recent reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated people. Pell Grants provide federally funded education for students with “exceptional financial need.” The U.S. Department of Education originally offered these federal funds to incarcerated students, but the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act decimated prison education programs for more than two decades. In 2015, former President Barack Obama restored an experimental version of Pell Grants for incarcerated people, and in 2021, President Joe Biden restored them in their entirety.
Fortunately, as a nonprofit supported by private donations and grants, MTC is not reliant on federal funding to provide students with free education. “In general, historically, public funding for prison rehabilitation has depended on political tides—politicians move to eliminate it as a way to be ‘tough on crime,’” said Jamgochian, who said she supports any type of prison education but values the advantages MTC has as an independent institution.
Despite the divergent challenges and benefits that independent and federally funded prison education programs encounter, both must approach restoring education, dignity, and respect to incarcerated people with thought, caution, and—in Jamgochian’s words—“an eye to equity and maintaining high standards.”
As colleges like MTC launch new initiatives, incarcerated people will regain not only their right to an education but also the opportunity to educate others. Peer teaching can facilitate greater understanding, support, and comfort between teachers and students. These efforts also boost the confidence and self-esteem of those leading the courses, who have a wealth of knowledge and experience worth sharing.
“I had low self-esteem growing up that I used gang activity and leadership to conceal,” Newman said “Now I am a teacher, a leader, and that has made my self-esteem go through the roof. I feel like I can do anything I want in life with these skill sets.”
The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.