Photo of San Quentin State Prison by Franco Folini (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This article was published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigating and elevating higher education. Sign up for its College Inside newsletter.

I attended a college surrounded by fences “adorned” with barbed wire. In early 2021, at 50 years old, I earned an associate’s degree from Mount Tamalpais College, which is located on the lower yard of San Quentin State Prison. It’s been life changing.

Mount Tamalpais College, which we call “Mt. Tam,” is the first independent liberal arts institution dedicated specifically to serving incarcerated students. The classroom is on the prison grounds, and the teachers are volunteers from other schools including Stanford, San Francisco State University, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. It has a study hall area where tutors are available five nights a week and a recently opened computer lab with 36 laptops that allow communication with teachers and access to reference materials through a “mediated internet,” according to Kirsten Pickering, research program fellow. 

For incarcerated people, the quality or success of a college program is often measured by recidivism rates. By that standard, Mount Tamalpais, formerly the Prison University Project, is a success. Its students had a recidivism rate of 17% compared to the 65% recidivism rate for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as a whole, according to a 2011 program evaluation

Moreover, MTC provides jobs for graduates on parole. I’ve seen Dimitri, a former student, come back into the prison, dressed up in a sharp black suit, as an employee of Mt. Tam. The college recently hired Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, the former editor in chief of San Quentin News. I know of at least three other formerly incarcerated students that are now Mt. Tam employees. 

For those of us serving long sentences, recidivism rates and jobs can’t represent the success of our college education. My pursuit of a degree started in 2016, approximately 16 years into a 55 years-to-life sentence. I would have to live to be 85 years old to evaluate whether an associate’s degree will break the cycle of incarceration that’s circled my adulthood. Proof of the quality of a Mount Tamalpais education has shown itself in several other ways that impact society and my life.

Incarcerated graduates have a positive influence on their peers and families. I remember attending a graduation where the valedictorian was a man with locks. His siblings — two sisters and a brother — and his mother sat in the front row as he gave a short speech. Afterwards, one of his sisters said, “I’m so proud of my brother. He’s the first to graduate from college in our family. And if he can do that from prison, I can get my degree too.”

The influence of college on peers is also apparent on the yard. In other prisons, the conversations you usually hear about are sports, war stories or women. At San Quentin, you can walk by and ear hustle (overhear) debates about ethics, politics or Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” 

A 2016 qualitative study featuring interviews with 27 Mt. Tam students showed that the program positively transformed how students think about themselves, others and their futures. More than 90% of respondents reported that college positively affected their self-identity, mental health and personal relationships. More than two-thirds also said that the program has positively influenced the prison culture at San Quentin, particularly with regard to race relations.

Personally, I see education as the key to my success from behind bars. After getting sentenced to a term beyond my life expectancy, I needed a path to redemption in the eyes of my mother, my sons and society that didn’t involve going home. I came up with becoming a writer because my voice was the one part of me that was still free.

I envisioned writing a memoir that people who grew up in tough neighborhoods like I did would read and drop their guns. The problem with that plan was that I only had a high school education and no creative writing skills. In isolation, I wrote for 10 years without training or a mentor. Words stacked up that no one heard.

In 2013, my security level dropped and I was transferred to San Quentin, a progressive, lower security prison. Here, they have all kinds of programs and I signed up for anything that could make me a better writer, including college, creative writing and the San Quentin News Journalism Guild.

Each program made my writing better and better. I became the sports editor for San Quentin news, and a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and Current. Additionally, the college program offered a communication class that developed my speaking skills. I pursued the oral art to deliver pre-recorded speeches over a collect call to reach Stanford, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and to honor James King — the campaign manager for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — and California State Senator Nancy Skinner for their work. This was sponsored by the nonprofit law firm UnCommon Law. Plus, speaking skills landed me as the co-host and co-producer of the Ear Hustle podcast, which was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist and DuPont Award winner. 

In a trailer used for a classroom, I learned the history of Black codes, unions, the New Deal and other events that shaped the environment that shaped me. From gaining this worldview, I began to look beyond the people who bullied me growing up and instead began to see the systems that pitted us against each other. My new perspective made it easier to quit taking things personally, forgive others, let go of my anger and heal.

Additionally, I learned how political systems work and put that knowledge to use. I inspired Taina Angeli Vargas of the nonprofit advocacy group Initiate Justice to fight for the restoration of voting rights for incarcerated people. Our efforts led to the placement of Proposition 17 on California’s 2020 ballot, which gained the support to restore voting rights to people on parole. 

Another thing that made learning from teachers in person a high-quality educational experience was socialization. Other prisons only offered correspondence courses that pale in comparison to in-person learning. Imagine professors from famous universities volunteering to give you a free education. Their dedication made me feel a love and loyalty to society that I never felt before — I can’t be a waste of their time.

I think the biggest mark of success stemming from my college education on a prison yard is the opportunity to go home. On Jan. 13, 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom commuted my sentence, which grants me a parole board hearing this summer for a chance of getting a release date in early 2023. As a reason for granting mercy, Newsom’s Legal Affairs Office cited, “participating in self-help programming and completing college coursework.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Rahsaan Thomas

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a journalist at San Quentin State Prison, California. He is the co-host of the podcast Ear Hustle and a staff writer for the San Quentin News. His work has also appeared in The Marshall Project, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, and in the Missouri Review series Literature on Lockdown. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the co-founder of Prison Renaissance.