Prison University at San Quentin Prison

Johnathan Wilson, Prison University graduate.

Johnathan Wilson, Prison University graduate.

Click on the images to find out more about their stories.

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Donning cap and gowns, four students walked to their commencement ceremony as relatives watched. The ceremony wasn’t at a local children’s school. It took place just across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge in late June, behind the walls of an adult institution where thousands of Richmond’s sons have been incarcerated over the years.

Unlike your typical graduates, Jeff Brooks, Yu Chen, Ricky Gaines, and Jonathan Wilson had denim clothes peeking through their gowns—prisoner uniforms from San Quentin State Prison where the four are serving life sentences.

“I did it,” Brooks said, modestly, while spending time with his mother after the ceremony.

“I rose above all the obstacles that are really against you.”

Brooks, 48, is serving his sentence on a three-strikes conviction for two armed robberies and failure to yield when stopped by a patrol officer.

The four graduates earned AA degrees in liberal arts thanks to the Prison University Project, a nonprofit organization that confers two-year college degrees on inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

A collaboration between the nonprofit project and Oakland-based Patten University, the academic program offers 12 classes ranging from ethics to mathematics. It’s now the last standing higher education program behind bars in California.

Started in 1996 with just two classes and no budget, the nonprofit runs on a budget of nearly $400,000 and relies on a staff of about 60 unpaid volunteer teachers and three full-time administrators.

“One of the core commitments that we’ve been able to accomplish is providing a real high-quality level education, not just a diploma mill,” said Jody Lewen, the project’s executive director. “We’re preparing students so that they can succeed.”

Some 300 students are currently enrolled and 100 are on a waitlist.

Supporters say the Prison University Project is a beacon of hope for rehabilitation in a California prison system that’s grown grim with budget cuts and overcrowding. Cuts to education and vocation programs in prisons has been linked by some experts to the state’s high recidivism rate, which stands at about 70 percent, the highest in the nation, according to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office.

In Richmond, police officers work with State Parole agents to monitor around 400 parolees in the city, many of whom were released from San Quentin. Much of the city’s serious crime is committed by parolees, according to Police Chief Chris Magnus.

In June, after accepting their diplomas and receiving praise from teachers and administrators, the graduates spoke consistently about using education as a step toward more ethical, productive lives. Jonathan Wilson, 46, lamented how his life may have turned out differently had he been more serious about learning as teenager; he’s currently serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for robbery and false imprisonment.

“One of the things that led to my incarceration was not having an adequate enough job with adequate enough pay,” Wilson said. “So I looked at education as a vehicle to move me beyond that when I get out.”

The ceremony included a keynote speaker—San Francisco District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell – as well as speeches from two valedictorians and a performance by a live band. Guests and students ate cake and chatted at the reception—a scene so common it was easy to forget the surrounding walls. But as the reception ended and relatives started saying their goodbyes, guests got a quick reality check.

“No hugs and no kisses—these are not visiting hours!” a correctional officer yelled as he rounded up prisoners to return them to their cells.

This project was also reported by: Armand Emamdjomeh, Helene Goupil, Guilherme Kfouri, Elizabeth Peirce

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