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Scholars within the walls of Pelican Bay

College of the Redwoods biology professor helps students at Pelican Bay earn their Associate Degree for Transfer

On a Thursday evening a California golden-hued sunset blankets the far north Pacific coast region where Christopher Callahan tells his students to tend to their plants. His students are checking Ph levels, adding fertilizer and formulating a hypothesis for a controlled experiment.

Like any other science classroom, the walls are covered in posters with the periodic table of the elements, the genetic codon chart and a display of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cell breakdown. The only difference with Callahan’s classroom is his students are wearing light blue loose-fitting jump suits with CDCR block lettering on the back, a handful are blasted head-to-toe with tattoos and a corrections officer paces down the hall every so often. Callahan teaches inside Pelican Bay State Prison and his students are inmates enrolled in the College of the Redwoods’ Pelican Bay Scholars Program.

Christopher Callahan answers questions regarding the difference between seals and sea lions for students Marcus Benavidez and Jose Catalan. | Photo by T.William Wallin

“Teaching in this environment is going back to the basics for me,” Callahan said of what it’s like to teach inside a prison. “The [students] come with a certain engagement I don’t see in regular college classes.”

Callahan always refers to the individuals in his class as students, because that’s what they are. He said they may be in prison, but inside the classroom they are college students getting an education with a strong sense of enthusiasm.

On this particular Thursday evening Callahan is teaching Bio 1, a transferable biology class with a lab on the B yard, which is a level 4 restrictive level housing unit. It’s locked down most of the day and there is no inmate control over the locking of doors.

Having transferable biology courses on a level 4 yard is a big deal, not only for Pelican Bay but for any prison. Callahan said this is a huge accomplishment. An entire summer was spent designing the lab course and getting equipment together which had slight modifications, like replacing glass beakers with plastic ones. Everything Callahan wanted to do was approved by the warden with relative ease.

Biology professor Christopher Callahan’s Bio 1 class is exactly the same model as it is at College the Redwoods. The class items are slightly modified but students are still able to use microscopes. | Photo by T.William Wallin

“My reasoning is to start at level 4 because if you can implement it there then you can implement at level 2,” Callahan said. “Pelican Bay has a reputation as the worst of the worst and if we can do these programs there they can be done anywhere. Pelican Bay can be a model for prisons nation-wide.”

Callahan is right. Pelican Bay is the nation’s only supermax state prison. Its purpose when built in 1989 was to house California’s most violent male prisoners. It was notorious for the lowest of the low, but that’s changing.

After hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, the Center for Constitutional Rights won a lawsuit against Pelican Bay that forced the state of California to end its unlimited isolation policy. Before the lawsuit inmates were spending decades in Solitary Housing Units, or SHU. Today half of the building that contained SHU was knocked down and re-purposed for a lower-custody level 2 housing unit where Callahan also teaches a marine mammal biology class.

In 2015 College of the Redwoods implemented a program for inmates to earn their Associate Degree for Transfer while serving time. Callahan was quick to mention most people in prison will be released at some point, so programs like the Pelican Bay Scholars Program are important because they help reduce recidivism rates.

“All of the courses we teach there are existing courses at the Eureka and Del Norte campus,” Callahan said. “Some modifications are made but we just implement whats already there. It’s as if we were teaching on a regular community college campus.”

Biology professor Christopher Callahan brings in BBC documentaries narrated by David Attenborough for his biology class at Pelican Bay State Prison. | Photo by T.William Wallin

David Nguyen, a student of Callahan’s, agrees with this and feels like he’s on a college campus when in class. Nguyen transferred to Pelican Bay from High Desert Prison in 2011 and every year requested to be sent to another prison. That was until 2015 when he joined the first pilot class of the Pelican Bay Scholars Program. Now he is one of the first students to graduate from the program and earn his Associate Degree for Transfer.

“I didn’t want to be here at all but then I started college and I requested to stay for once,” Nguyen said. “This is a real class room experience and I had to take advantage of that.”

Getting to graduate almost didn’t happen for Nguyen though. In the beginning of the semester he was supposed to be transferred to a lower level yard but instead he requested to stay at a higher secured level so he could finish school. Transferring yards would have meant his schedule would change and he couldn’t take the necessary courses to graduate.

“There was a day when I was walking through campus and forgot I was in prison,” Nguyen said. “I looked around and said to myself, ‘I’m a student right now’.”

In Nguyen’s experience the program is changing the culture of Pelican Bay. With around 300 students enrolled, different races and gangs are starting to interact with one another and even study together, something that just wasn’t possible before.

“Some people are changing their lives around,” Nguyen said. “A lot of people have been rehabilitated here.

Nguyen is one of those people. He chooses his words carefully and is meticulous in his speech. Nguyen carries with him a type of ivy league school confidence you wouldn’t expect in prison, and it shows in his writing. He recently created ‘The Pelican’ with other students, an informational newsletter that circulates within the prison’s walls.

Pelican Bay Scholars Program students test experiments on their plants during their transferable Bio 1 class. Having a biology class with a lab on level 4 yard is an accomplishment for any prison. | Photo by T.William Wallin

Nguyen glows when he talks about school. He said students grow plants, pollinate them with Q-tips, take measurements of different liquids like nitrogen and phosphate and learn about male and female reproductive systems. They even use microscopes to look at dividing cells in sperm, testes and ovaries.

“We’re learning the scientific method, how to hypothesize and see if we reject it or accept it,” Nguyen said. “I’m a science dude, I love this stuff. When we do labs most students get woke real quick.”

This is the type of feeling Callahan got when he was a student. Callahan is so invested he even scheduled this course at night because he wanted to allow his working students fit the class in their schedules.

“Biology is hands-on and for them that’s totally different because all other college classes like history or business are not hands-on,” Callahan said. “To experience this is not like any other course. Its catching momentum on the yard.”

Even though it doesn’t have a lab, his lower security level 2 D-yard marine mammal biology course is integrated with hands on activities. Callahan brings in porpoise skulls, dolphin bones, whale baleen, krill in a jar, sperm whale teeth and plenty of documentaries narrated by David Attenborough, which captivate the students and boost their engagement.

One of the students is Marcus Benavidez, who is set to be paroled in a month. Benavidez is taking with him 30 transferable credits to Riverside City College in southern California.

Like Nguyen, Benavidez has been in the program since the first semester. Benavidez has a slow drawl, faded tattoos on his forehead and a huge embracing smile. He is optimistic with the pace he set for himself and said he was “half way to the finish line.” Benavidez never imagined he would come to prison and get to earn a college degree.

Pelican Bay Scholars Program students log in the results of their experiments on their plants for Bio 1 class. | Photo by T.William Wallin

“I was in the SHU for a few years and when I was sent back I was told people in CR wanted to see if I was interested in classes they were offering,” Benavidez said. “I went to one class and was hooked. The next semester was more classes and it just kept rolling and now I’m at the half-way point.”

Benavidez said he loses interest easily but Callahan keeps his classes fresh. Benavidez went into marine mammal biology skeptical but by the end of the course, it was one of his favorites. He said Callahan was a great instructor and admitted he is a little envious about leaving because won’t be able to graduate in the program.

“I feel like a student, they treat us like students,” Benavidez said. “Once I get out of my building and come to class I am a student, it doesn’t matter that I’m in Pelican Bay.”

Always up for a challenge, Callahan is currently designing more classes for the future. He said next year there will be another biology course taught, making Pelican Bay the only prison in the CDCR system to offer three. It will be a botany course, which Callahan said was inspired by the Pelican Bay Garden Club. With the addition of this class a science exploration degree will be possible.

“The course will be Plants and People, and we will grow veggies and plants,” Callahan said. “When you go to college you take courses that are of interest to you. I always encourage my students to follow their passion.”

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