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Letters from Pelican Bay

by | Tania Mejia

Last week, the Sociology Department hosted the Criminal Justice Dialogue, which was a week full of events covering issues related to incarceration. This years topics included the impacts of incarceration on the family, employment and housing barriers for those with a criminal background, the importance of education, juvenile and reentry stories, and it ended with a community roundtable discussion. I had the privilege of attending each discussion, and I must say, what a week! There was a lot to learn from each presentation, but I was most moved when discussing education on the inside and outside.

Kintay Johnson, assistant director of Extended Opportunity Programs and Services at College of the Redwoods, was one of the speakers at the event, and to say the man is inspiring is an understatement. Johnson is a charismatic, kind hearted and devoted member to his community. Five nights a week he visits Humboldt County Jail where he teaches college prep courses and plants or waters the seed of higher education in inmates’ minds.

Prison University Project also joined the discussion and shared information about their mission, goals, programs and the impact they have had. Their mission is to provide college preparatory courses and higher education programs to people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. They have successfully created a network of teachers and volunteers who offer over 300 students 20 courses each semester in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science, as well as intensive college preparatory courses in math and English.

In their presentations and in thinking about my prison pen pals I could not help but come back to the notion that knowledge is power, and that sharing knowledge is powerful. I also could not help but think of how taken for granted our college experience and resources are. The students who skip classes for unimportant reasons,or in professor terms ‘unexcused absences’, leave during class breaks, sit in their seat browsing the internet, scrolling through their phones, and completely disengaged from what is being presented to them come to mind. Personally, I do not care and trust me I have been guilty myself. After all, we are all choosing how to maximize our time while at this institution, but when I think about people in an institution that cages and locks them up with little access to education, that is when I care.

I talk and write to inmates who would love the opportunity to sit in a classroom setting, exchanging ideas, and sharing their own. I will never forget something one of my pen pals once shared which was along the lines of I grew up knowing where Pelican Bay State Prison was, but not Humboldt State University. Moving forward we must end mass incarceration and begin a mass education movement. A movement that ends the school to prison pipeline and creates a prison to school pipeline.

The need is there. Compared to other states California has one of the highest recidivism rates, and we know prison education reduces recidivism. A study funded by the Department of Justice found that people behind bars who participate in educational or vocational training are 43 percent less likely to return to prison once released. Yet, a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it costs an average of about $71,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison with, but only $2,437 of that amount goes to academic education, cognitive behavioral therapy, and vocational training!

What is most alarming is that compared to prison inmate costs, California is only spending roughly $8,000 to $11,000 per student pupil. I would argue education should be free, but until then we must help those who face many more barriers than those in the ‘free world’ do. I encourage everybody to take their education and skills beyond the outside to the inside, and look to organizations like the Prison Education Project, Prison University Project, Teach in Prison, and more. If there are no existing organizations in your area contact the facilities community resource manager or lieutenant and propose a class or program. If education lowers recidivism, then we need to educate and empower those behind bars to ensure they do not return, cost taxpayers money, and in the future we can allocate those funds towards higher education.

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