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Dr. Jennifer Fisher, professor in the philosophy department, is no stranger to San Quentin State Prison. She is familiar with the yard, the inmates and the guards. She knows that visitors can not wear dramatic jewelry or the color blue. That’s because she is frequently a visitor herself, when she volunteers by teaching students in the college program at San Quentin.
The Prison University Program was founded as a College Prep and Associates Arts Degree Program after a 1994 federal act that prevented people who were incarcerated in the U.S. from receiving Pell Grants. The implementation of this law made it near impossible for many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to gain higher education. The Prison University Program provided the funds to create the college program at San Quentin in 1996 with this in mind. Their intent is to provide incarcerated individuals with the opportunity to learn, and potentially secure their future after their release.
Dr. Fisher teaches ethics for the Prison University Program, one of the highest level classes that students must pass before receiving their Associate’s Degrees. She’s found that many students apply the ethical principles they learn to their experience in the prison system. Fisher, who prides herself on her reputation at USF for her tough teaching style, says that she does not treat her San Quentin students any differently. “They always ask, ‘do you really grade us like your other students?’ They don’t want to be given a ‘play’ degree,” she said.
Dr. Kimberly Richman, a professor of sociology and legal studies, is the advisor for Alliance for CHANGE (Creating Hope and New Goals Ethically). This nonprofit program, which Richman helped establish, provides an opportunity for professors and students to volunteer their help to prisoners both during and after incarceration. The program offers an 18-week social justice curriculum, as well as anger management courses and other programs for inmates while they are in prison. They also offer post-release “First Day Out Welcome Kits,” which include clothing, smart phones, Clipper cards and other basic essentials.
Both professors commented on the emotional graduations that students participate in once completing the program. Richman recalled one graduation ceremony that was especially touching. “At one of our graduations, a graduate who was a former white supremacist hugged an African-American graduate to congratulate him. He then remarked ‘That is the first time in my life I ever hugged a black man. I never thought I would have done that but this program changed me,’” she said.
Fisher said, “They’re not like graduations here. It’s almost like going to a church service […] an affirmation of life.”
Photo: Dr. Jennifer Fisher teaches ethics to San Quentin inmates. VIMEO