San Quentin State Prison: A last bastion of higher education

Audio by Robert Rogers All Photos by Armand Emamdjomeh San Quentin State Prison maintains the only on-site, degree-granting program of higher education in California. By Robert Rogers SAN QUENTIN – As a child, Troy Williams grew calloused to the South Central Los Angeles street ethos: Gangs, violence, drugs and firearms. But Williams, now barrel-chested and 43-years-old, didn’t have the confidence to speak up in a classroom until he became a resident of San Quentin State Prison. “In the past, I never even felt adequate in a classroom,” Williams said. “Now, I can come in, I can learn and be comfortable.” Each weekday in this ancient, cinematic citadel – perched on the sublime shores of San Francisco Bay since the mid-19th century – teams of educated volunteers try to provide convicted felons a college-level education. Williams, along with about 300 inmates at the prison, qualify for enrollment in the Prison University Project, a nonprofit program that offers inmates basic education and even an associate of arts degree through Patten University, an accredited university in Oakland. The program at San Quentin is a rare bright spot in a dismal era for California’s overcrowded prisons, which consume more than $8 billion annually. State budget crunches and tough sentencing laws have deteriorated the once model system to the point that in recent years federal courts have declared conditions in the state’s prisons unconstitutional. Started in 1996 with just two classes and no