San Quentin Gets Its Own Liberal Arts College Inside Of The Prison

The Mount Tamalpais Community College in San Quentin State Prison is now an independently accredited liberal arts college. It’s one of the first in the country, previously serving as an extension site of a small college in Oakland, California, for more than 20 years. 

Now, it has become its own institution that educates incarcerated students, giving them a chance for a better life.

During an interview with the college president, Jody Lewen, she explained why they decided to become independent. The designation was granted after the Western Association of Schools and Colleges reviewed their programs and determined that they met specific educational standards.

“So, we are now an independently accredited liberal arts college. As far as we know, Mount Tamalpais College is a first and only fully credited independent college with a main campus inside the state prison,” she explains. 

The Benefits of Independence

When they initially pursued accreditation, the goal was to become an independent institution free from the whims of another college. They wanted to have more control and not feel the ups and downs of a parent-school. 

As they embarked on the process, the many advantages of becoming autonomous and independently accredited became more apparent.

In particular, they see now that the community of higher education institutions can recognize and value what they are doing for the lives of the inmates, bringing learning that could change their lives. 

Jesse Vasquez, a formerly incarcerated Mount Tamalpais student, mentions how the rehabilitation he experienced during the classes impacted his stay. 

“Rehabilitation does make a difference in the culture of the prison and also on the mindsets of the people incarcerated in these institutions.” Jesse Vasquez

“I think now, having one accepted accredited college, all of a sudden more people might be more open to the idea of […] ‘Hey, why if we try this revolutionary idea somewhere else?’ So I think the future looks hopeful for higher education in prisons.”

Building Better Futures for Inmates

Incarcerated individuals who receive education during their sentence are more likely to live better lives outside. The chances of them returning to prison are also reduced. That’s one of the main goals of Mount Tamalpais Community College.

Bonaru Richardson, another formerly incarcerated person who now studies in the college, mentions how their independence can serve as an example for other state prisons.

“It shines a brighter light on what Mount Tamalpais is doing inside of this prison system because, for the most part, people didn’t really look at it on a big stage like that, right? They didn’t think that the individual inside the prison was getting a quality education when we’re actually […] getting top-of-the-line education. They’re not just giving you an education, they’re giving you hope. You know, they’re giving these individuals up in here hope […] in a place [that’s] basically hopeless.”