Part II: Obstacles to Successfully Pursuing Higher Education Inside Men’s Prisons in California 

This piece is part of a three-part investigation into higher education inside men’s prisons in California. This second installment documents the many barriers incarcerated men encounter in pursuing and excelling in collegiate scholarship.  The post Part II: Obstacles to Successfully Pursuing Higher Education Inside Men’s Prisons in California  appeared first on Kansas City Defender.

Part II: Obstacles to Successfully Pursuing Higher Education Inside Men’s Prisons in California 

(RJ Lozada / Mount Tamalpais College Website)

While reinstatement of federal Pell Grants for prisoners and state legislation have made higher education more accessible in California prisons in recent years, college-related costs persist, as do other expenses and questionable charges (among other non-cost related difficulties), incurred as a result of pursuing a degree as an incarcerated college student. 

Brian Asey, who works in the San Quentin State Prison media center as a visual journalist and filmmaker helping to create documentaries like, “Growing Up Behind Bars,” shared that he received his Associate of Arts degree and intends to continue his education. But in San Quentin, Mt. Tamalpais College — known also as Mt. Tam or just MTC — only offers two-year programs and degrees, so Asey can expect new expenditures as an undergraduate if he embarks on a four-year program through an outside institution.  

Even education that ought to be free for incarcerated students based on formal arrangements can, according to one source, burn a hole in the wallet of a prisoner enrolled in college. 

Amu Wynn, a scholar inside the California State Prison in Solano, alleged one prison education program mistakenly claimed he didn’t return his books and subsequently withdrew from his account the little money he had to live on. He explained this happened after he received a letter on August 3 stating he had until August 2 to turn in a book he had dropped off weeks prior, or have money deducted from his savings. 

“I earn pennies an hour, literally like 23 cents which I get less than half of due to restitution,” Wynn disclosed. “In 20 years I may have earned close to $800.” 

Expenditures erect barriers to pursuing both bachelor’s degrees in prison — already challenging given the scarcity of four-year programs offered in-person — and even to just taking courses toward two-year degrees, despite reforms that on the surface created free opportunities for prisoners. 

Yet an abundance of other obstacles to academic achievement inside state penal institutions also persist, per interviews with men incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in California. And it is men, as of January 2023, who make up more than 95 percent of individuals in the custody or under the supervision of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, compared to about four percent of people identifying as women and a little less than half a percent able to identify as non-binary, according to recent CDCR data

Multiple incarcerated sources, most with no relationship or connection with one another, repeatedly corroborated each other’s claims and criticisms regarding the problems plaguing state facilities in relation to higher education. Comments provided by educators with experience in a prominent California prison education program offer additional insight into what actually goes on and affects imprisoned college students in state institutions. 

Problems with College Programming in Prison that Arose During the Pandemic 

From Associated Press: “Instructor Douglas Arnwine hands back papers with comments to his incarcerated students during a Mount Tamalpais College English class called Cosmopolitan Fictions at San Quentin State Prison on April 12, 2022, in San Quentin, Calif. California.” (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Some sources suggest the COVID-19 pandemic provided a pretext for discontinuing in-person courses and programs, as some have yet to return, and compensatory alternative forms of instruction have not filled the void. 

Brian Lenardo had his spring 2020 term cut short at MTC. He had volunteered to team-teach a pre-college algebra class and an astronomy class there before all MTC classes ended abruptly.

“So that semester, essentially, it was just cut off, and we never finished that class,” Lenardo said. “At least I never finished that class. And then from what I can tell the program for, I think, a year, didn’t offer classes.” 

Other current and former MTC staff members, several anonymous students and volunteer faculty published an open letter in March 2021 lambasting the college program in San Quentin for failing to provide distance learning options that would have enabled students and educators to finish the semester that was already halfway through. Instead, Mt. Tam leadership abandoned “almost every attempt to continue educational programming,” according to the letter. 

“Leadership at Mt. Tamalpais College has created a toxic environment marked by transphobia, anti-Blackness, retaliation, gaslighting, and white saviorism. Current leadership has actively rejected practices that support collaboration and inclusivity, among staff and faculty alike; instead, they have created a punitive culture that penalizes Black and brown staff and faculty, as well as trans and LGBTQIA+ people.” “An Open Letter: Reckoning with Mount Tamalpais College’s Culture of Harm” by PUP Organizing on Medium.

Lenardo returned to MTC in spring 2022, and after teaching his astronomy course inside San Quentin for about two months, a big quarantine forced a halt to in-person classes. But that time they did rapidly transition to correspondence coursework until the quarantine was lifted. 

Murray, a signatory to but not an author of that open letter, previously worked in the Prison University Project — later known as MTC — study hall on Friday mornings, tutoring students in humanities courses and helping incarcerated men figure out how to improve their writing, without doing actual editing or proofreading of assignments. She said she believes there is some truth to the assertion made by prisoners that the pandemic became an excuse to discontinue educational programming. As for PUP/MT, Murray noted the college continued to receive funds after initially canceling classes because of COVID. The college also conducted fundraisers during that time and used some of the funds to provide food trucks for COs, she said. 

“Funding from that all came in from donations where people were told, like, ‘Oh, this is going to go to help incarcerated people here in various ways,’ and [they] absolutely misrepresented [how funds would be used],” Murray said. 

Prisoners in San Quentin are not the only ones to witness the disappearance of college programs in the wake of the pandemic. 

Classroom settings have “simply vanished,” according to Gerardo Madriz, an incarcerated scholar inside California State Prison, Solano. 

“I know that [COVID-19] has had a great deal to do with this; however,” Madriz continued, “as it stands there has been talk of getting back to in person college classes for the last two years. Despite the fact that all other programs and educational classes have returned to in person [sessions], college has not.” 

Since the pandemic, he explained, guidelines required restrictions and classes have had reduced capacities that contribute to waiting lists filled with prisoners eager to enroll. 

Coerced Signatures on Required Forms and RVRs 

The forms many incarcerated men report having to sign in order to enroll temper their enthusiasm to begin college coursework–reluctant to commit for fear all their work could be for naught, given what they have to agree to and put their signatures on in order to take classes. 

One of the most pressing issues for higher education inside state prisons, Wynn wrote, has to do with the commonplace practice of making college course access contingent upon signing a form that states a student agrees to be kicked out of college if that individual receives a 115 Rules Violation Report (RVR). 

Sep. 28 2011: A Rules Violation Report condemning Pablo Piña for participating in a hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison. (Pablo Piña /Between The Bars)

He shared that a fellow prisoner, Mario Ratliff, a CDCR Fire Camp participant as of this writing, refused to sign the form stipulating the new policy permitting the administration to kick him out for receiving a 115. 

“Therefore,” Wynn wrote, “he did not receive his 2022 summer courses from Solano college that was already here and prepared to be passed out to him.” 

Given the form and the RVR policy, a number of incarcerated men do not want to be enrolled in education classes, according to Madriz, and some request to be removed if and when they are assigned to courses. 

Some will “go to such lengths as refusing to attend class & getting ‘written up’ receiving a Rules Violation Report (RVR) / CDCR 115,” he explained, “which can both harm an [individual’s] chances at release & affect their chances to ‘down class’ to a lower security level institution in addition to affecting their ‘privilege group’. These students, including those who are given multiple [RVRs] are forced to remain assigned to their education assignments while others who truly desire advancing their education wish to be assigned to the classes which have very limited capacities,” especially in the wake of COVID, leaving those who do not wish to pursue education enrolled in classes while would-be students ready and willing to begin remain on wait lists. 

Enrollment Issues 

Issues with enrollment extend beyond RVR concerns and pandemic-related limitations and cancellations. 

Robert Anton, an incarcerated scholar inside CSP-Solano, pointed to “the continuous paperwork to fill out” just to enroll. 

Others report being or seeing would-be students prevented from enrolling in courses they need to take to make academic progress. 

Per his account, Arthur Jackson took classes in prison via Coastline College circa 2013 before he began taking classes with MTC in 2016. 

“For example,” offered Arthur Jackson from inside San Quentin State Prison, “I have been trying to enroll in the last class to obtain my AS, for over 2 years; because San Quentin’s proctor [has] lied to me regarding enrollment dates, school information, and being absent without a [fill-in-proctor].”

Madriz, who mentioned he worked in the education department at CSP-Solano, highlighted a programmatic tendency to fill classes without regard for the needs or desires of students. 

Men in his housing unit have been on wait lists for months or even years, he lamented. 

It’s a recurring problem, in his view, as is CDCR not recognizing international degrees. 

“For example,” Madriz explained in writing, “I have met several inmates who had college degrees (A.A., A.S., B.A., B.S., Master’s & even PhDs) from international foreign institutions with valid transcripts from the institution to CDCR which were not ‘recognized’ as [accredited schools] according to CDCR. This was most often the case concerning schools in Mexico, China & various European countries.” 

Andrey Yuschchuk, an immigrant who moved from Ukraine to the US in 1993, when he was 23, reported entering a moderate security level in Solano prison in June 2016. Yuschchuk, who previously graduated with an electrician’s Associate of Arts degree, submitted his diploma to the school and the available counselor. He took and, per his account, passed introductory business college classes. Later, Yuschchuk recounted, the college program in the prison pushed him into GED classes without providing other options. He said he asked the counselor about it, but to no avail. 

Andrey Yuschchuk’s College Diploma (translated to English by the Sacramento World Relief office).

As a result, Yuschchuk said he hasn’t received any milestone credits, the marks that can facilitate early release. 

Yuschchuk wrote that he moved to a lower security level in October 2021 and applied to enroll in college again, but he was once again rebuffed because, he stated, the decision-makers claimed he lacked a GED, even though he says he submitted his diploma. 

In addition to reportedly unnecessary discrepancies regarding transcripts that can interfere with enrollment, Michael Baker, a prisoner-scholar inside the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, believes unnecessary work-related conflicts preclude prisoners who would otherwise take classes from doing so. He sees SATF-CSP as exceptionally unhelpful in that regard because unlike other prisons where he’s spent time, the facility in Corcoran refuses to broadcast college videos on a loop over institutional channels. Broadcasting those videos on a loop so incarcerated scholars could catch the lessons in their cells on their own time would reduce or eliminate conflicts between class times and job assignments. 

“Currently one must be physically present in education class [Monday through Friday from 1:15 to 2:45 p.m.],” Baker detailed. “If you have a job assignment during that time, [you’re] screwed.” 

An incarcerated student likewise gets “screwed,” he added, if the proctor does not show up. In relation, Baker elaborated on another way the CDCR bureaucracy has erected additional enrollment barriers that did not exist before. 

In referring to CDCR as a “middleman,” one example Baker had in mind pertains to the excessive use of proctors in prison higher education programs to process what they probably should not have to. They’re tasked with micro-managing access to required course materials while macro-managing the totality of documents and forms coming from the incarcerated student body in a given facility. 

According to Baker, a proctor holds onto enrollment forms from swaths of men eager to commence or continue post-secondary education behind prison walls, and then the proctor mails all of those documents to the college at once. Whereas in the past a would-be student in a state facility could autonomously complete and mail in his forms to ensure timely enrollment, Baker sees the current bureaucracy as responsible for “unnecessary delays,” which often result in prisoners not getting into courses they could have taken. If they do luck out with enrollment, he explained, they don’t receive their syllabi until much later — another persistent problem prisoner-scholars face, detailed below. 

Issues Accessing Syllabi, Textbooks, Technology, Supplies and Materials 

Sources on the inside and those on the outside suggest issues of overwork adversely influence the ability to obtain materials needed to successfully participate in college courses in prison. 

Baker praised his current proctor but noted she’s “usually overwhelmed” at the beginning of each semester when she’s responsible for passing out syllabi, scantrons and other course documents to a surfeit of students inside SATF-CSP, Corcoran. 

A few semesters back, when he was enrolled in three courses via Palo Verde College, the semester had started and he still had received no syllabi. 

As Baker recalls, he immediately read every syllabus once he finally received them. 

“Each of the instructors had the first assignment due the very next day,” he explained. “It stated that students who do not submit their first assignment timely will be dropped from the course.” 

Although he wrote a letter to the program that night explaining the circumstances regarding the untimely receipt of what some instructors consider a near-sacred document for any given course, he received prompt drop marks for all three of those Palo Verde courses he had intended to take. 

Baker encountered a similar issue with textbooks when enrolled in Palo Verde college classes:

“I went for alcohol and drug studies, business, and accounting,” he wrote, lamenting: “I was forced to drop all three because my books were issued too late.”

Timely distribution of textbooks frustrates the incarcerated sources consulted, but so too does inequitable distribution of and access to books and supplies required for courses. 

“[Not] all enrolled in the same intermediate algebra or statistics classes were provided the required calculators,” Madriz wrote from inside CSP-Solano. “[Some] students are not given the course [texts] before the course while others must wait until after the start of the term.” 

Elsewhere, officers and the storage warehouse had yet to provide Damon Anderson the college textbooks he purchased himself and needed for classes starting in two days, according to a message Anderson wrote via JPay on January 16, 2022, while still incarcerated in the SATF-CSP in Corcoran. 

“And this is not just me,” Anderson added in an all-lowercase message edited here for capitalization. “This is happening [a lot]. Last semester I did not get my philosophy text book until November and I ordered it in August. I had to drop another class.” 

Following up, he wrote the day his classes started last January he still had not received his books. Two days later, he mentioned using the tracking numbers from Amazon to find out one of his books arrived there on December 28 and the other on December 30. The prison system just held onto them.

“I’m going to have to drop my college classes because these assholes still have not given me my books,” Anderson, who as of this writing is incarcerated in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, shared on JPay on January 24, 2022, before his transfer. 

By March 2022, Anderson enrolled in one college course via Palo Verde and in three others with a separate institution. 

“[I] had to drop three [other courses] because of this place not giving me books,” he shared in regards to the facility in Corcoran. “It is hard.”

Having spent time in several California prisons, Anderson wrote in a previous message that SATF-CSP made it the hardest for him to get the course textbooks. 

From within the same facility Anderson did time prior to being moved, Baker corroborated the textbook distribution problem and wrote he was also wary of enrolling in courses again because the syllabi do not get distributed to students on time. 

He thinks colleges could notify prisoner-scholars about enrollment sooner to allot more time for books to arrive before classes begin. 

Textbooks, according to Baker, are currently processed along with all other prisoner mail like quarterly packages, recreational book orders, special purchase orders and the like. He wrote that warehouse-stored mail serves upwards of 10,000 prisoners spread across multiple yards. 

A separate PO box for time-sensitive textbook orders could improve the process, he thinks, as could delivering the books to an adequate number of college proctors rather than tasking officers with distribution, given, per Baker’s account, their propensity to pass them out only “once a week whenever they’re up for it,” while the course text “sits in a room for days on D yard.” 

From the state prison in Solano, Madriz attributed many issues less to unhelpful officers and more to a “systemic problem” involving the education department and related to shortages in staffing and assistance as well as “logistical deficiencies” and a general lack of support. 

Per Madriz, some students have received the calculators they needed for courses, while others did not — or, they were provided devices with dead batteries. As of late, students no longer receive lined paper or pencils and pens, Madriz noted, and even though a class will tend to involve 16 weekly assignments, prisoner-scholars usually only receive five to six required envelopes per class for assignment submissions. 

Although sources referred to a lack of adequate access to even basic technologies and resources, the inability to use the Internet in ways college students outside of prison take for granted and do regularly to email professors with questions, submit assignments and conduct research, further disadvantages scholars in prison.  

Murray, who in addition to assisting students in MTC study hall also worked as a research assistant for a workshop inside San Quentin, said the lack of Internet access seriously stymies and impedes projects. 

“Even if they felt the need to like limit what was accessible,” Murray said about the prisons in reference to making desktop computers, laptops and Internet available inside the facilities, “that would still make such a huge improvement in what people are able to do in terms of their education, whether for writing specifically or wanting to look up more about whatever topic it is that they’re learning in class at the moment, or just in general.” 

Students in Mt. Tam had some access to word processors when she was involved, but the screens were so small it made typing exceedingly difficult. 

Lenardo, who’s been involved in MTC more recently, said the college created a computer lab inside the education building in San Quentin last spring. 

He said that ought to be a huge help in classes like classic astronomy for when instructors want to show models of the solar system. He said discussing topics like “spectral lines” in astronomy proved a challenge because students could not view them through a telescope and there were limited options for visual aids and demos, which can require approval months in advance, though he mentioned finding workarounds like burning YouTube videos onto DVD and bringing those into the classroom. 

But when his team of educators assigned an open-ended essay related to an astrophysics question each student could choose based on a list of exciting lines of research inquiry provided by instructors, the inability of incarcerated students to seek out their own materials posed problems.

“That’s first of all a difficulty for the students because they can’t access materials themselves, and second of all difficulty for instructors because then we have to curate this,” he said. “And it’s more difficult for both parties, because it’s more work for us. But also, the students are stuck with whatever we give them; they can’t go get their own research materials. So if we don’t choose something that’s at the right level, it’s difficult.” 

Problems with Pedagogy and on the Educator’s End 

Incarcerated students from Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State Prison. (RJ Lozada / Mount Tamalpais College Website)

The aforementioned open letter from students, staff and volunteer faculty addressed to Mt. Tam also indicted the college administration’s creation of a “hostile environment” replete with racism — anti-Blackness in particular — retaliation, as well as notions of “white saviorism,” despite the program claiming to support social justice efforts. 

Contradicting that professed commitment, the college complimented CDCR and criticized organizations working on decarceration in a newsletter it shared, according to the letter. Despite MTC being listed on various websites as an institution in support of racial justice and prison abolition, the college failed “to advocate for PPE, releases, or many of the other expressed needs of their students,” the letter detailed. 

But higher-ups in the program did ask individual MTC educators who engaged in prisoner solidarity efforts to write about it for their annual report. 

“What I saw is very much they were concerned with making the school and therefore life at the prison seem, I guess, shinier and less bad than it would be if they weren’t there — so not discussing at all a need for there to not be [prison] in the first place,” said Murray, who longer volunteers with MTC. 

She said a big consideration behind the name change, from the Prison University Project to Mt. Tam, had to do with presenting the appearance that degrees were not being awarded by a prison higher education program. On the one hand, Murray acknowledged that might benefit formerly incarcerated students. But she added it was ostensibly for MTC a way to obtain more funding and focus on the individual in a narrow way rather than working to support needed systemic transformation. 

In her experience interacting with students in study hall, Murray said she discovered that, although students did not at all disavow the opportunity to earn credits that could maybe lead to early release, the overwhelming majority of the dialogue centered on realizing personal as well as community transformation. 

But under close watch by guards and given the conditions defining the education offered at San Quentin where she volunteered, fostering the spaces conducive to that transformation proved difficult.  

In addition to the racism pervading the MTC program, documented in that open letter, Murray said neglected problems of classism and socioeconomic disparity permeated higher education in the prison too. 

“A lot of the people who teach there are living very comfortably in the Bay Area, which says a lot about financial and class sort of status,” she said, later adding: “But it’s interesting that it wasn’t addressed in the letter, and I’m not really sure why. And I think it might have something to do with the fact that disparity is sometimes invisible to people who are very much a part of it.”

It was discussed at a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshop held inside San Quentin, Murray noted. “It was addressed there, and [the endemic issue of class stratification was] brought up by the students who were the ones who organized the workshop. And people were encouraged to speak about it, and many people seemingly didn’t know how, or perhaps weren’t comfortable speaking about it. And those people of course being the ones from the outside, the educators.” 

Whatever an educator’s socioeconomic status and background, even those keen to make learning as inclusive and powerful as possible run into roadblocks inside prison walls. 

“There are things that I didn’t appreciate before I got involved, which are, like, access to study time, for instance,” Lenardo said. “You know that people who are incarcerated don’t control their own schedules in the same way that we do. So that’s a huge difficulty. Making time and finding time to study resources is a big one.” 

COs and other CDCR Personnel Actively Interfering with Education 

The lack of say incarcerated men have over their CDCR-controlled lives in California prisons, along with the environment inside that testimony from sources suggests too often exudes forms of hostility and misandry far more severe than what the open letter to MTC admitted, appear to routinely exacerbate the difficulties described above. The officers and CDCR personnel who exercise that control and maintain those environments also magnify the challenges associated with collegiate scholarship inside prison — and sometimes by way of direct obstruction.

“It’s a game for some [correctional officers]. It’s a culture,” according to Wynn, who doesn’t think you can “change the problematic origins (culture) of an institution simply by implementing a policy that addresses latent effects.” 

He cited problems with procedures implemented by CDCR personnel as a way to exercise, or arguably abuse, authority. From his perspective, sargeants, lieutenants, captains and wardens, learn to establish their authority by implementing new policies that make little sense, knowing they’re the ones capable of fixing asinine situations of their creation and also also that prisoners must ask them for help in order for them to change or modify the unreasonable rules they imposed. 

It affects education inside CDCR institutions, Wynn explained. 

He described a scenario in which an alarm might sound at 10:38 a.m., delaying him and other prisoners headed for an 11 a.m. class. The alarm might not clear until 11:05 a.m., at which point he can head to the education building. He’ll tell the CO he’s there for the 11 a.m. ducat access. Since he’s technically late, due to the alarm and the halt to movement throughout the facility it causes, the CO responds with an order to come back for the next unlock at noon. Wynn might inform the CO that since his ducat is for 11 a.m., he might not be let in if he returns at 12 p.m. Per Wynn’s experience, the CO might then retort he has to get re-ducated since he missed the 11 a.m. unlock. Wynn can mention that he couldn’t help the alarm and it can take two to three days for a ducat request for education to be filled, but it will be to no avail, according to his account. 

“I credit the lack of higher education to many of their misgivings,” Wynn shared about COs he’s interacted with. “Some are half decent human beings — meaning that they recognize patterns and behavior that warrant negligence of duty, breach of occupation, abuse of authority, misconduct and choose not to exude the like, which leads them to be frowned upon by the majority.” 

Baker concurs.

“I’d say systematically there are failures and attribute it to [the] mindset guards have had for years that [we are] too pampered, [we] have it too good in prison,” he wrote.  

In Baker’s estimation, they fail to realize more education results in less recidivism. 

Writing from within the CSP in LA County, James Cain conversely attributed some of the obstruction from COs to their concerns that the lower recidivism associated with higher education in prison will result in lower salaries for themselves. 

Regardless of the rationale among COs who interfere with higher education inside California prisons, the direct interference nevertheless appears widespread given similar accounts from prisoners in institutions across the state. 

Study hall for Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State Prison in the Bay area. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)

Madriz identified a procedure that affects prisoners at both low and high-level security facilities and, in his assessment, tends to be used to target those pursuing higher education. 

“A college student will more often be subjected to strip searches, clothed body searches or pat downs than other [prisoners],” he asserted. 

Compounding issues accessing books and materials, COs have taken or destroyed texts, materials and devices used for scholarship inside California prisons, multiple sources have indicated. 

Anderson said correctional officers (COs) confiscated his typewriter last year, forcing him to write many multi-page essays and assignments by hand while also making it difficult for him to do his paralegal work. 

Baker, who after self-educating himself early on in prison, circa 1998, using his friend’s old textbooks, finally enrolled in formal college courses for the 2013-2014 academic year while inside the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) in Corcoran, recalled right away witnessing COs going “above and beyond to create problems” and hinder prisoner education. 

“[In] 2014 officers trashed over $500 worth of my property,” Baker remembered, “including my textbook for the Spanish course I had enrolled in. I had finally talked my mom into buying the textbook and that happened.” It discouraged him enough he didn’t enroll again until 2019, per his recollection. 

In the same vein, echoing Baker’s own conflicted feelings about pursuing higher education as well as the comment about guards believing prisoners have too many privileges, Jason Mascio, who previously spent time inside the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, and participated in courses run through the local community college’s prison education program there, wrote he’s “sure” many COs have likely been bitter about prisoners receiving free college education. 

COs might have felt they didn’t deserve the opportunity “and therefore did what they could, when they could, to make it more difficult, close to impossible or even improbable that we [would] fail because they could control any outcome at any time for any situation they could create,” Mascio shared. In a letter dated Juneteenth, he wrote he could partially recall that some COs maintained strict policies regarding unlock times when guarding the gate to the education building inside the CRC. He remembered that they required prisoners to carry particular passes and that the COs restricted movement “as much as possible to and from class or lab,” while also limiting access to the college homeroom space. 

According to Raymond Luke, who also attended classes in the Norco College Prison Education Program inside the CRC, guards actively interfere with students’ chances of earning credits for early release, and 115 write-ups are one way COs prevent guys from getting to class. 

“If you disobey a CO by wearing a skull cap or sweater because of the weather you will get a 115,” Luke wrote. “If a guy gets two [write-ups] within six months they go on C-STATUS. C-STATUS prevents you from [participating in] programming for at least 30-90 days. You can’t leave the dorm, get visits, or [enjoy] other privileges.”

When he attended the CRC, a 115 did not automatically result in ejection from the prison higher education program, but Luke explained how write-ups could compound other issues caused by COs who make the academic lives of incarcerated men that much harder. 

A student might have four classes all in a row, he said, and that guy might turn a laundry bag into a makeshift book bag to carry all his texts for those courses. The bag with the books inside could get confiscated by a guard who deems the student’s ingenuity a disruption of state property. When the incarcerated student returns later, the next CO on duty might then say he knew nothing about the bag or the books. Responding to the CO in the wrong way could result in a 115 for disobeying a direct order, he said. 

“Guys don’t know how to fight back, and they are afraid of retaliation,” Luke remarked. “When guys are turned away because of late unlocks, [clothing], and using a laundry bag to carry all of their books, they get [discouraged]. They don’t enroll because they don’t want to risk getting [write-ups].” 

From an educator’s vantage point, Murray saw similar problems in San Quentin.  

“There were definitely COs who were actively preventing students from getting to classes,” she said. Guards also arbitrarily decided they would not open the gate to one of the buildings prisoner-scholars needed to access, she said, but the CDCR employees did all that in cagey or ambiguous ways that made it so they couldn’t be accused of necessarily or deliberately obstructing education. 

Murray said she also knew about course materials being taken from incarcerated students or destroyed in ways that seemed suspicious. 

Tu Tran, an incarcerated scholar who enrolled in Mt. Tam in 2019, shared that COs in San Quentin, despite prisoners screaming to get their attention, opened cells late, which kept students from getting to classes on time. 

“Others have experienced custody staff violating their personal space, such as confiscating textbooks [and/or] deliberately destroying classwork materials during a [random] cell search,” Tran wrote. 

Based on her research and her experience inside San Quentin via PUP/MTC, Murray cited another problem associated with accusations of “overfamiliarity,” a disciplinary label applied when it appears an incarcerated person has a relationship with a volunteer, educator or someone working on the inside that has veered from the professional to the friendly.

The disciplinary category prevents deeper pedagogical relations from forming for arbitrary reasons, she said.

She said guards can observe what they deem “overfamiliarity” and report it, and Murray said she got word administrators in MTC slapped the label onto instructor-student relationships. 

“I even heard that one person had overfamiliarity applied to them because they asked where a teacher was when they hadn’t been in for a while,” she said. 

Students who came to the study hall session she facilitated in San Quentin had increased chances of receiving the admonition because of the one-on-one conversations inherently involved there not present to the same extent in the classroom setting. One student she interacted with received a warning about it, but nobody she worked with suffered the consequences that can come with the reprisal. 

Incarcerated students can be removed from educational programs due to allegations of “overfamiliarity,” and Murray said she’s aware of at least one instance in which officials sent a prisoner to a form of partial isolation known as administrative segregation for receiving a reprimand based on him engaging in a relationship determined to be too convivial.  

Yet, under stressful conditions and despite treatment from authorities that in some cases can become trauma-inducing, men inside California prisons find ways to co-create convivial spaces within a surrounding milieu of suffering and desperation, uplifting and assisting each other in their shared pursuit of personal as well as community rejuvenation via journeys through higher education.

The final installment of this series documents how some of that happens. 

Full disclosure: The author taught a class as part of the Norco College Prison Education Program inside the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall semester in 2019. Two former students from that class are quoted above. 

Read “Part I: The Historical Context that Shaped Higher Education in California and Inside Golden State PrisonsHere.

The post Part II: Obstacles to Successfully Pursuing Higher Education Inside Men’s Prisons in California  appeared first on Kansas City Defender.