Prison education — interview with Jody Lewen | VIEWPOINT


Jody: There are so many people who are incarcerated
in the U.S., who have had such limited opportunity for a quality education. And the opportunity for them is really to
learn and to grow, and to develop the skills that they need, not only to study and to work,
but also to be engaged citizens. Gerard: Hello. I’m Gerard Robinson. And today, I have the pleasure to have a conversation
with Jody Lewen for the Prison University Project. Welcome to AEI. Jody: Thank you. Gerard: When you hear the term “prison education,”
what comes to mind? Jody: I think of opportunity. Gerard: Opportunity, what does that mean to
you as someone who is managing a project, and what does it mean to your students? Jody: I would say the opportunity is greatest
at the individual level. Gerard: Okay. Jody: There are so many people who are incarcerated
in the U.S., who have had such limited opportunity for a quality education. And the opportunity for them is really to
learn and to grow, and to develop the skills that they need, not only to study and to work,
but also to be engaged citizens. But I also see it as an opportunity for this
society as a whole because the prison population is also drawn primarily from some of the most
marginalized and under-resourced communities in the country. And so by providing opportunity to those individuals,
we also provide opportunity for those entire communities. Gerard: And for your program, you’re providing
opportunities to a number of people in California in San Quentin. Tell us a little bit about your program. Jody: We offer an Associate of Arts degree
program and a college preparatory program for about 350 men at San Quentin. The program is funded entirely privately and
is an extension site of Patten University. Which was, in its earlier years, a nondenominational
Christian school based in Oakland, California, which actually stuck with this field shortly
after the elimination of Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which is how that program began. Gerard: So you have a Ph.D. from University
of California, Berkeley. You could have used your Ph.D. to teach, as
some would say, “students in the free world.” You decided to actually teach a different
population. Tell us a little bit about your journey to
becoming the leader of the program that you have today. Jody: You know, I stumbled on this work almost
by chance. I heard about it through a casual conversation
at a conference in 1998. I was in graduate school at the time working
on a Ph.D. in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, in fact. And I had always been very interested in pursuing
improved access to higher education for disadvantaged populations, but my work was very abstract
and theoretical. I was working on a dissertation on the role
of images of matter and space and psychic life, literature, and psychoanalysis. But when I heard about this program, for me,
it seemed like an opportunity to integrate my interest in social justice with academia,
and so it was ideal. And teaching, which is how I started out,
was just a joy, and really didn’t feel at all and doesn’t feel at all like a sacrifice,
but really like an opportunity. And then, as I say, the opportunity to bring
opportunity to people who are incarcerated was extremely meaningful and important. I actually think there is no greater use of
one’s skills and talents than working in a prison setting. Gerard: You were kind enough to invite me
and a few of our leaders here at AEI to visit San Quentin. I had a chance to talk to some of the men
in your program. For people who are watching us right now,
just tell them something about the guys in your program. Where do they come from? What are they interested in? Who are they? Because when we hear “prisoner,” there are
all kind of ideas that come to mind. Jody: One of the greatest challenges to the
field as a whole is actually the way we all imagine people who are incarcerated, really,
almost like they’re a subspecies or a diagnostic category. And even when I first started out, I remember
still the first time I went inside, I was really scared. And I was driven by principle and ideas, but
I expected to feel unsafe. And I think one of the greatest surprises
for people when they come inside is how ordinary the environment is and, actually, how positive
and even warm the social climate of the program is. They are extremely diverse. Our students range in age from about 18 to
70, 75 even. Most dropped out of school between about 7th
and 9th grade, got the GED in prison. That’s the most common educational profile. They come from some of the poorest communities. Although, not all. I mean, everybody’s got their own unique story. But academic failure has been the characteristic
of almost everybody’s life at some stage. And often, it’s not only that the schools
they were in were low-performing and under-resourced, but often their lives were so chaotic that
even a decent educational opportunity wasn’t necessarily something they could take advantage
of at the time. The rates of homelessness, poverty, addiction,
foster care, or exposure to violence, emotional, sexual, physical abuse, are really overwhelming. That’s sort of the profile. Gerard: So if a guy is in your program, is
he automatically enrolling to earn an Associate’s? Is he enrolling just for personal improvement? What are the options? Jody: So the way the program runs, all students
come in and take a diagnostic exam at the very beginning. We want to see where their skills are at. About 90% will start out in the college preparatory
program, in math, and in English. On average, they’ll spend about a year in
that program before they go into the credit classes. But everybody is eligible. So in the beginning, students may just want
to take a couple of classes. Some people often, in the beginning, say,
“I don’t want to do math. I just want to do English.” You know? Or vice versa. But very often, once they get involved and
have a positive experience, they want to continue. So most of the time when students don’t complete,
it’s because they transferred or they paroled from the prison. Gerard: So when we look at the college preparatory
side of your work, is that adult basic education? What does it entail? Jody: The interesting thing about the college
preparatory program, in many senses, it’s really the most important thing we do. It basically takes students from wherever
they are, which may be in some areas almost elementary… Gerard: Sure. Jody: …school-level, particularly in mathematics… Often, people come in reviewing decimals,
fractions, multiplication, division. And often, on the reading and writing side,
everybody has a GED or a high school diploma, but many have never heard of a thesis statement
or an outline, or an introduction. And so the college preparatory program is
really charged with bringing them up to speed, getting them from wherever they are up to,
essentially, 12th grade or at least through what would be considered adequacy for GED
preparation. But in addition to the academic content and
skills, there’s a whole social-psychological dimension to the college prep program, which
I think is really critical as well. And it’s really about helping students understand
what an academic setting is like, how to function, you know, as a student which is, you know,
some of the soft skills that go along with college, like notetaking or studying. But it’s also really having an identity of
student, really becoming confident and comfortable in a classroom setting, and learning even
to take seriously one’s own ideas. And it also has a lot to do with dialogue
and discussion that takes place in the classroom, and really learning to listen and critique,
to not take it personally if someone disagrees. You know, all the different ways in which
the classroom is really quite different than a prison yard. Gerard: So we know this is not your first
visit to Washington, D.C. You were here before and had a chance to meet
with President Obama. Tell us about that meeting and why you were
in town. Jody: I would say, standing in a room with
President Obama and two former students was, hands down, the most satisfying experience
of my life. It really was a sense of almost having climbed
a mountain and standing at the top. It was really, really a joy. Really difficult to describe, but immensely
satisfying. And I can also tell you when I went back to
the prison and talked to people, a number of people walked up to me, tapped me on the
shoulder and said, “You touched Obama, right? So if I’m touching you, I’m touching Obama.” I mean, the joy in the program was just incredible,
just to know, “He knows we’re here. He’s thinking about us.” Gerard: And you received an award. Tell us a little bit about that, and then
I’ll follow up with a question afterward. Jody: So the National Humanities Medal was
the award that we were given, which was especially meaningful to us. Because it really situated the work that we
do within the humanities, and I think really underscored the fact this is not just about
criminal justice or about public safety. This is about higher education and the humanities,
and the well-being of this society as a whole. Gerard: And there’s a good point, you mentioned
the humanities, because some prison programs focus job training, CTE. You can go… The humanities can support that as well, which
you were very intentional. As someone who studied rhetoric, studied philosophy,
I have a degree in philosophy, so we are both humanists in that aspect. The importance of that being a part of the
total person. So I’m definitely glad to hear that. When we think about the future of education
and you mentioned President Obama, currently, we have the Pell Pilot Initiative. We know that 1994, because of the Federal
Crime Control Act, that pretty much wiped it out. Where was prison education in 1994 before
that took place? And what do you see as some possibilities
now that we have the experiment in place? Jody: You know, before ’94, there were a few
hundred higher education programs in prisons around the country, both vocational and academic. I should say “post-secondary programs.” And it was a quite expansive field at that
time. When the Pell Grants were eliminated, it effectively
wiped out the field, and we have a long way to go before us. I mean, I think that reinstating funding is
just one piece. What we really, really need right now is the
opportunity to grow the field, to grow the professional community to create strong models
of best practices so that we have examples that new practitioners in the field can draw
from. I think the other thing that the field urgently
needs is some systems and standards of accountability. Because right now, it’s a very unstructured
and underdeveloped field. Gerard: What are two recommendations you would
offer based upon your years of experience in this field? Jody: I would say, whenever humanly possible,
face-to-face instruction. Gerard: Okay. Jody: And I would also say that programs really
need to be held accountable for investing resources in permanent staffing, faculty,
and solid training for people working in this environment. Gerard: The professors or the instructors
you have, volunteer basis? Jody: Yeah. Gerard: And they come from the Bay Area? Jody: Yeah. The college program at San Quentin draws on
faculty from UC Berkeley, Stanford, San Francisco State, all the local colleges and universities. But they all have at least a master’s degree
in the field and the same qualifications as would be required at most of the campuses
where they were. Gerard: So what would you tell future Jodys,
who are watching us right now, to think about if they want to enter this profession? Jody: I would absolutely encourage folks to
reach out, and to listen and to learn about the field, to come inside and visit, and to
read, reflect. And I also encourage people to reflect on
their own motivations because this is also a field that draws folks who are often looking
to live out or express some dimension of their own personal, political, or professional life. Gerard: Yeah. Jody: It’s a kind of magnet for narcissism
in a funny way. And so one of the things we start with when
we train faculty is to really encourage them to reflect and to develop a level of self-awareness,
which will hopefully prevent them from misrecognizing their students and instead projecting whatever
it is they’re bringing to the table. Gerard: Well, again, I want to thank you for
the work you do with the Prison University Project. I want to thank you for your commitment to
the humanities. Again, we always need that. And thank you for being here at AEI. Jody: Thank you for everything you’re doing
to elevate the field. Gerard: Thank you. Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Jody
Lewen. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover on “Viewpoint.” And be sure to subscribe for more videos and
research through AEI.

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5 Responses

  1. WordsAreLikeRivers says:

    We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, I wish we would talk about this more. I wish more people cared.

  2. MasterStryfe says:

    Education comes before jail, not after. Jails are not schools.

  3. MasterStryfe says:

    Most people who lack education are either immigrants, or trash that choose to be criminals and make a quick buck instead of going to school. Some girls choose to marry criminals because they choose to not get an education. Met plenty of kids that choose to not go to school. They choose to be criminals and go that route.

  4. johnnycatR58 says:

    Wow shes from Berkley, used the word "social justice", but isn't completely detached from reality.

  5. wimmisky says:

    We've long ago accepted that we don't have the stomach to use our prisons as punishment. Since our leaders have decided that every decision an adult could possibly make must have criminal consequences, and that having a criminal record of any kind must be a permanent disqualifier in our society, I very much wish that prisons offered an opportunity for education and rehabilitation.

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