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Private prison college promises open debate and inquiry

President described the college climate as politically diverse

An accredited college within San Quentin Correctional Facility that receives zero public funding promises an education that favors open debate.

Mount Tamalpais College is run by Jody Lewen, who also sits on the San Quentin Transformation Advisory Council, tasked by Governor Gavin Newsom with turning the prison into a “rehabilitation center.”

The council is “tasked with assisting the administration in delivering on the Governor’s announcement to transform San Quentin State Prison by 2025 into a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation center focused on improving public safety through rehabilitation and education,” according to the governor’s office.

MTC is an independent liberal arts college operating inside the prison that offers inmates approximately 60 courses and an associate of arts degree, according to its website. One reason for its independence is that it does not receive state or federal funding.

“One important difference between us and any other community college, for example, is that we are independent – we don’t get money from the state or federal government,” Lewen told The College Fix on a phone call.

This can make things difficult as the Marin County college relies solely on outside donations, Lewen said. Still, an upside is that they are free from “the bureaucracy and politics that come along with public funding.”

“We are also free to invest whatever resources we determine are necessary to support each individual student’s success,” she said.

Lewen described the college climate as politically diverse.

“Some of [the students] are conservative, and some of them are progressive,” which is “reflective of the U.S. as a whole,” Lewen said.

“We’re not here to proselytize or indoctrinate,” Lewen continued. She described the students as “creative and independent thinkers.” The college received accreditation in January 2022 but it has provided higher education to incarcerated men at San Quentin for nearly 25 years.

One hundred and seventy-three students have graduated from MTC with an Associate of Arts degree as of 2019, according to the alumni page. Nearly four thousand students have taken at least one course.

Theresa Roeder, chair of the board at MTC and a professor at San Francisco State University, told The Fix via email that she is hopeful about prospects for education in correctional facilities.

In recent years, “there has been what seems like an explosion of colleges and universities delivering content inside prisons,” she said.

While some are optimistic about the prison’s transformation, others have expressed uncertainty.

Joe Patterson, a California Republican state assemblyman, shared his opinion on Twitter, saying, “I’m open to discussing any prison rehabilitation programs and glad this will come thru a committee I sit on. But given the secret prison releases by this administration, I am skeptical.”

Patterson “said he can’t help but be wary after the state has released numerous offenders early without being more transparent about its credit system for determining such releases,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle

MORE: Colo. prison education bill would reduce sentence length for college completed

IMAGE: Mount Tamalpais College, R.J. Lozada

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Anna Lofgren is a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island where she studies secondary education. Anna has been a guest columnist for The Providence Journal and hosts two FM radio shows through her university.