Transcript for Jody Lewen on the Prison University Project

Jim Fleming: Jody Lewen thinks about higher education in a way most of us never have before.  She’s Executive Director of the Prison University Project, a degree granting program for the inmates of San Quentin State Prison in California, one of a handful of such programs in the country.  Lewen told Steve Paulson that accessibility is everything when it comes to higher education.



Jody Lewen: For me, what’s important is doing everything that one can to provide access to higher education to people who don’t traditionally have access to it.  I think that that’s what’s particularly compelling to me and also to a lot of the other folks who are involved with it.  I think most of us know that the range of people, the range of students who make it into high quality colleges and universities in the country is severely limited.  People growing up extremely poor or with parents who are addicted to crack or who have undiagnosed learning disabilities are barely represented in the higher education system and that has all sorts of ramifications for the society at large, all sorts of people who have a tremendous amount of first hand knowledge and experience about what’s going terribly wrong in this country, who are very disempowered and don’t have, not only access to the sort of professional and education echelons of the society where a lot of the decisions get made, but they don’t even really have the opportunity to make their voices heard.



Steve Paulson: So what happens when these inmates enroll in these college classes?  What kind of impact does it have?



Lewen: First of all, students show up, they have to have a high school diploma or a GED to enroll.  That’s the sole requirement.  About 90 percent of them are not ready to do college level work, so they’ll spend about the first year in college prep English and Math classes, and then they will get started when they’re ready, in the college credit classes, and it’s really interesting to watch.  I mean I think, obviously most of the people who show up know they want an education.  It’s obvious the participation in the program is voluntary.



Paulson: So these are highly motivated students?



Lewen: Extremely highly motivated, but they’re not necessarily highly confident and so they’ll show up and they’ll work hard, but I think a lot of them in the beginning have some serious doubts about whether they’re going to be capable of really doing the work, and what’s interesting is sometimes when they do well, their first reaction is, ‘well, this isn’t really as hard as it is on the outside is it,’ and in fact, the people who are teaching them are grad students and faculty from Berkley, San Francisco State, [inaudible] State, Stanford, and they certainly are among the most challenging teachers around and we push the teachers hard to push the students hard and to make sure not to lower the standards in any way.



Paulson: So this is not kind of the dumb down version of college here?



Lewen: Not at all, not at all, and that for me is one of the most deeply personal issues.  To me, what’s interesting is not only who has access to higher education in this country, but also who has access to what type, what quality of higher education, and what I see happening in the society at large is a lot of people are, on the one hand, working hard to increase access to higher education, to marginalize communities either geographically or educationally in some way, but the problem is, it’s the quality of education that they’re providing which is often distance learning based, is nothing like the kind of education that you would get, for example, here at Madison, University of Wisconsin, or at Berkley, or at any of the other schools that we are talking about, and I resent that deeply.  I feel like in a way that society is actually not going to change until we democratize higher education at the higher end. 



Paulson: Tell me about some of these people.  Tell me about the change that some of these people have undergone through taking these college classes.



Lewen: You know, it’s interesting.  There’s a tremendous range, I mean people have grown up in a lot of different places.  Our students range in age from 18 to about 70.  They come from all over the place.  Most of them were Californians, but a lot of them grew up in other places too, but I’ve had students who just had grown up in such an isolated environment.  You know, for example, I mean I know a young guy who had never left his own neighborhood in his life and I remember him saying, I don’t know how it came up.  I think we had a guest lecturer come in who was from another country, and he said to me, ‘I thought there were only universities in the United States,’ and I said no, actually there are universities all over the world, and what made you think that, and he said, ‘well, because all these people come here to go to college, so I just figured there weren’t any.’  I mean that is sort of a universe or framework for living and thinking, that’s so far outside my experience, but so imaging for him how the world is growing and shifting as he’s in school, the things he’s learning and studying, and conversations that he’s participating in.  I mean there’s that range of experience and then I think there are also people who really just come into contact with parts of themselves.  For example, we have frequently run introductions to psychology, child development or clinical psyche, and people encounter clinical, academic knowledge in these classes that they, in a sense, have been looking for their entire life, or in a sociology class.  Ways in which people have behaved or they’ve seen other people behave that never made sense to them or that were extremely confusing and painful, they suddenly find a vocabulary, conceptual vocabulary, and in an environment, in a community to discuss these things with, so you see a lot of self-awareness and growth in that sense and people just really linking up with a framework to think through their own experiences, and I think then, once you have that kind of conceptual vocabulary, change takes on a whole new form because you’re not, you’re not just thrashing around in the dark anymore, you’re actually oriented.



Paulson: What is it like from the other side, for the teachers who come in who might be professors at Berkley for instance, or some of the other local schools that are there?  What’s that experience like, to teach in San Quentin Prison?



Lewen: I think for the teachers, the experience is at least as life changing as it is for the students.  I’ve known a lot of people who changed their career paths as a result of teaching inside and even if they remained in the same field, they did it very different or they pursued very specific topics and ideas as a result, but I’ve also known people who, for example, graduate students who moved away, you know, for their first job and one of the first things they did was either find the local prison, the local education program at the prison, or they started a college program at the local prison.



Paulson: Why?  Why did they want to work in a prison?



Lewen: Well, I think some of them would say, ‘I just want that experience of having highly motivated, energized, committed, respectful students.’



Paulson: Seriously, a lot of these, a lot of these people are more motivated...



Lewen: Oh yeah.



Paulson: ...those who are taking the classes in prison, than the people outside, a conventional four year college are?



Lewen: Absolutely.  No, look, when I went to college, I had no choice.  I mean in my neighborhood, you got the death penalty if you didn’t go to college.  I mean most kids at most of the elite colleges and universities in this country are going because their parents told them that they had to go or that they should go, or because their friends are going.  They’re not necessarily going out of a burning desire to get an education or out of the knowledge of what education will do for them emotionally and intellectually and professionally, so imagine that.  Imagine a classroom full of people who get it and who want the education, who are immensely grateful, who just have that level of hunger.  I mean for teachers, it’s like a drug, so I think, yeah, it may be altruistic in the beginning, but I think a lot of them really feel by the end that it’s fairly selfish. 

Paulson: Can you tell me about some of the other people who’ve gone through this program, not the teachers, but the students, and some of the changes that you’ve seen?



Lewen: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting because I am somewhat resistant to the narrative of transformation, you know, the sort of, the narrative of redemption that’s so common in discussions about education and recovery programs in prisons.  You know, the model, the idea of rehabilitation of a human being.  There are certainly a lot of people who feel that, you know, I remember one guy saying to me, ‘I had no soul when I got to prison.’  That’s one person who I think felt that he had been transformed by his educational experiences, that it had somehow woken him, so every new students attends a new student orientation in the beginning of their first semester, and we explain the logistics of the program and how it runs, and do a bunch of paperwork with them, and very often when they first come in, I mean everybody is perfectly pleasant, but they’re often very shy and quiet and somewhat expressionless, and so since I usually start their orientation, I get to see their faces in the beginning, just looking out in this field of just quiet, subdued listeners, and by the end, as they’ve heard about the program and how it works, and that there’s a college prep program and they don’t need to worry if they feel like they’re not ready, that we will help them get ready, they soften and they relax, and they look hopeful and excited.  You know, we had, Christmas Eve, we had an open mike which has become a tradition of ours, sort of like a talent show, part talent show, part poetry slam, and I remember a guy who actually came to San Quentin really recently, but has been in the system for about 12 years.   As he walked out, he shook my hand and thanked me and he said, ‘you know, this is the best Christmas I’ve had in 12 years.’  I don’t know, I don’t know how to really describe my reaction to that, but there’s something about the program’s capacity to break through people’s feelings that they’re alone in the world that I think is probably it’s greatest gift. 



Fleming: Jody Lewen is the Executive Director of the Prison University Project, a degree granting program for inmates at the San Quentin State Prison in California.  Steve Paulson spoke with her.

Comments for this interview

Relationships! (Jeffrey Whittaker, 12/07/2013 - 5:23pm)

In order to improve relationships between human beings we must satisfy their needs! Claiming to be superior does not help people! Supporting competition erodes our moral strength like a leaky pipe! We must promote mutual respect, unconditional positive regard, empathy, compassion, optimism and objectivity! Dishonesty leads to broken trust!

Prison University Project (María Cristina Navarrete, 05/14/2013 - 11:51am)

Me parece maravilloso el proyecto Prison University. Quisiera saber si algo semejante existe en Solano State Prison. Si no es así, por favor pensar en llevarlo a esta prisión. También les pido información sobre programas universitarios por correspondencia.
Mi e mail es

Berkeley not Berkley (Anonymous, 06/20/2012 - 9:58pm)

Berkeley not Berkley