College Behind Bars


Listen to the story on APM Reports.

To get to the 99A college prep English class at California’s San Quentin State Prison, you pass through two security checks, two gates and a very thick, very old metal door that looks medieval. You walk into a courtyard surrounded by guard towers. Inmates in pale blue scrubs with the word “PRISONER” printed on the back in bright yellow are hanging around, playing baseball and chatting.

Across the yard sits a cluster of portable trailers. These are the education buildings, and they’re where the Prison University Project holds its classes.

One evening early this year about a dozen men sat at tables in one of the trailers, notebooks and pencils spread before them beneath the fluorescent lights. A guard supervised from a corner of the windowless room.

Once this was a not uncommon sight in an American prison, inmates doing hard time but working on a college degree that might help them get a job or otherwise adjust on the outside.

Every year 700,000 inmates leave prison, and there is ample evidence that those who have a college degree are less likely to come back. But, as the nation prepares an increase in the number of released prisoners, as reforms to sentencing guidelines for some drug offenses kick in, programs like San Quentin’s have become a rarity.

In this documentary I helped produce for APM Reports, lead producer Samara Freemark looks at college education in prisons across the United States.

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