Behind a wall and razor wire, students discuss morality, identity, and nationalism. Dressed in matching blue uniforms, the students break from discussion when a guard enters. The guard calls men by last name. Each replies with the last two digits of his inmate number.
These incarcerated men are students at Mount Tamalpais College at California’s San Quentin State Prison. It’s the first accredited junior college in the country based behind bars. Inmates can take classes in literature, astronomy, American government, precalculus, and more to earn a two-year Associate of Arts degree.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredited the college in January. The program passed as providing high-quality education. The designation requires the school to maintain high standards. It may also help catch the attention of donors to help the college expand. Up to 300 students can take classes per semester. But another 200 are on a waiting list.
Private donations fund the college. Teachers are volunteers. Many are graduate students from top schools like Stanford University.
Guards check IDs of students coming to classes held in trailers on one edge of the prison’s exercise yard. Students discuss assignments while corrections officers watch from above.
Overhearing those conversations made a big impression on Richard “Bonaru” Richardson. “In other institutions, we were used to talking about gang activity, violence, knives, drugs, the next riot,” the former inmate says. But in San Quentin, the conversations are often about class content or how to write a thesis.
For some inmates, earning a college degree is “the greatest achievement of their lives,” Richardson says. Now out of prison, he works with the college’s communications and fundraising departments.
A 2013 study found that inmates who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to re-offend. They are 13% more likely to obtain employment. That rehabilitation is one reason teachers and donors are striving for the college’s success.
All people have broken God’s laws and are prisoners to sin without Jesus to set us free. As God has shown mercy to us, we are called to show mercy to others—including prisoners who break human laws. Educational programs like Mount Tamalpais College may be one way to do that.
Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God. . . . They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. — Psalm 107:10-13
Why? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, at the end of 2020 there were over one million people in state or federal prisons. While many of us may not have direct contact with incarcerated people, God calls us to remember prisoners.
Pray for those in prison and their families. Ask that inmates would experience God’s love and be drawn to repentance.