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How a visit to the San Quentin reshaped my views about prisoners and prisons themselves

On Oct. 6th, I went on a tour of San Quentin State Prison with my government class, as we are currently studying the U.S. justice system.

I was nervous about the trip, as I hadn’t had much personal experience with prisons. I knew I had distant relatives who had been incarcerated at San Quentin and a cousin who had once been a prison guard in Oregon. In other words, prisons were a sort of family institution, and I didn’t think too much about the system.

My assumptions were that prisoners weren’t people, and those like Ted Bundy, classified as “the very definition of heartless evil,” as said by his defense attorney, Polly Nelson, deserved to be locked up, to be punished.

During the trip, I was introduced to four inmates who reshaped my opinion of prisoners and the prison system itself. They talked about their experiences, their lives before prison, how they had changed and how they had taken responsibility for their actions.

I won’t ever forget these men, because, through them, I was shown that not every criminal is irredeemable. Not only are prisoners people, but I make the distinction of saying that they are human.

Yet without help from the federal government, reintegration into society is difficult, to say the least, for the inmates. One of the inmates even made a point of comparing himself to a terrorized animalsuddenly let loose in the middle of Main Street, U.S.A.

As much as the state tries to deny it, there isn’t any outside assistance for the inmates. When inmates are released from jail they receive $200, a bus ride and a cautionary “Stay out of trouble.” However, in this day and age, they can’t buy a decent television set with that, much less support themselves or get a job.

Many business owners today refuse to hire former inmates and,with so many people applying for every job, they never have to.

Additionally, most prison inmates don’t have college degrees, nor do they have applicable skills for the real world, dooming them to a life of sizzling burger patties and further crime.

When I heard about the efforts of the Prison University Project at San Quentin, I was inspired. The project is the only one of its kind in the country; most prisons in the U.S. are built away from urban areas, making it harder to institute volunteer programs. In contrast, San Quentin is situated right in the middle of the Bay Area.

Through the program, professors, graduate students, and TAs volunteer to help teach these men at a college level, and get them degrees so that they are better equipped for the outside world.

I know that if I have the chance, I will go back and help teach. A program like this is not fostered anywhere else, but should be — and it needs support.

I won’t attempt to solve every problem in the American prison system. No one person should. And while I now see those incarcereated as people and not just “criminals.”  I won’t deny the existence of sociopaths like Ted Bundy or Douglas Clark. However, I will strive to help all those that I can with programs like the Prison University Project, as should all those who are able to.

I urge every professor and student to go to the website, to learn about teaching opportunities. I didn’t expect it, but I came out of San Quentin different than when I went in.  Perhaps it’s time for you to seek your own reshaping by getting involved.