What is the prison itself like?
It’s about as hard to generalize about the prison as it is to generalize about the students: for those who don’t know, San Quentin is located on one of the most beautiful pieces of property in the Bay Area, on a kind of headland near San Rafael, between the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges. Set up high, it overlooks the ocean. Parts of it look like the 19th-century building it is, with castle-like turrets and old stone. But you can see guards with guns up in watch-towers, and there are of course lots of very large metal gates to walk through. The courtyard in which you enter contains lovely manicured gardens in parts, while you find lots of concrete and asphalt in other parts of the complex. The education program used to be housed in a very old and somewhat unpleasant building, but in the last few years the classrooms have moved to new, much nicer spaces. They have tables, desks and blackboards, and inspirational posters decorate the walls just like any other classroom. And, yes, there are guards at the entrance to the building but not in the classroom with us.
What are the students like?
Two of my current co-instructors this past semester were new volunteers to the program, and both of them, after their first night teaching, said the same thing with surprise (and some relief) in their voices: “Wow, it’s just like any other classroom!” In other words, our students at San Quentin are in some ways just like our students at Berkeley: they complain about homework; they love some of the course texts and hate others; they are sometimes sleepy in the classroom; they disagree with each other sometimes and other times give each other support. Some are very adept and some struggle with the material. I’m often asked whether I hold them to the same expectations as I hold my Berkeley students — indeed, I’m most often asked that by the San Quentin students themselves, who want to be reassured that they aren’t being treated differently. The answer, of course, is yes. There are more non-native English speakers and far more students with learning disabilities in the San Quentin program, but there are also students there who are quite proficient. This past semester we had a few students with prior college coursework and a number of students whose writing skills are actually more developed than a typical Berkeley Reading-and-Composition student.
The students at San Quentin, however, are less likely to have experience with literary texts, especially poetry, and they are not always as familiar with certain customs of academic writing and language. But they are incredibly fast learners and hard workers, and they never take their presence in the classroom for granted. They are more likely to be curious about history, and very often know much more about it than I do. They are also more willing to be critical — of the texts we read, of each other’s arguments, and of their instructors! And they are as ready to admit that they don’t get something as they are to question our authority, though rarely in a disruptive way. They are argumentative, funny, and imaginative. To give one anecdote from this past semester, for instance, one of the students raised his hand after discussing Mina Loy’s futurist aphorisms. “Wait,” he said, “what do these have to do with Africa?” Puzzled, the teachers asked him to clarify: “Well,” he went on, “aren’t these supposed to be Afro-risms?” Laughing, the teachers explained the word aphorism more clearly, but asked, jokingly, if he had an example of an Afro-rism. “Yeah,” the student shot back, smiling. “How about ‘Pick your hair, not your nose!’?” The rest of the class burst into laughter.
Most interestingly, the students don’t necessarily want to think only about the kinds of “obvious” issues that many of us initially assume will interest and engage them. For instance, they don’t only want to read literature about prisons! In fact, many of them see the education program as a chance to escape intellectually or emotionally from their daily lives and the constraints of the institution. However, they do often want to talk about their personal experiences and their lives before and in prison; they just want to do so in a context that gives choice and doesn’t hem them into one particular way of using those experiences in the classroom. One of the most successful negotiations of this I’ve seen was in a class I co-taught a few years ago with another English grad student, Peter Godwin. Peter designed a fantastic literature course around the theme of islands. Texts from Robinson Crusoe to The Tempest, from Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” to Kurt Vonnegut’s Gallapagos allowed us to discuss a wide range of topics, including free will, magic, race, imperialism, and evolution. But the themes of isolation, seclusion, and the survival of the fittest also allowed them to speak and to think about their own experiences on another kind of deserted island.