|By Lynne Shallcross
STUDENTS IN CALIFORNIA ARE GOING
BEHIND BARS. THEY’RE TEACHING
MATH TO PRISONERS.
It’s Wednesday night, time
for engineering student Sean Rhea
to head to class. But before he
gets to the classroom, he must first
show his I.D. to an armed guard.
Then, as he makes his way across
the grounds, he can hear the gates
behind him closing, and he knows
the guards in a tower high above
are watching. After showing his
I.D. a few more times, he finally
reaches the classroom, which happens
to be in San Quentin State Prison—home
to almost 6,000 inmates and the
state’s only gas chamber.
Rhea, who’s earning his Ph.D.
in computer science at the University
of California-Berkeley, goes through
this process once a week with almost
a dozen other UC-Berkeley engineering
students so they can tutor inmates
at the prison.
Rhea and his classmates volunteer
in the College Program at San Quentin,
which began in 1996 and is part
of Patten University in Oakland.
It has about 60 volunteer tutors
and more than 160 inmate-students,
all male, who are working toward
associate of arts degrees. The engineering
students usually teach math-based
classes, which range from a two-part
introductory math course to trigonometry
Program director Jody Lewen says
the students work hard at making
inmates comfortable with math since
many of them haven’t been
in a classroom in years.
Despite the challenges of re-teaching
the fundamentals, the volunteers
say the inmates are a pleasure to
teach. “They’re good
students,” Rhea says. “They’re
motivated and interested in learning.”
The thing Rhea has to work hardest
with them on is persistence. Stick
with it, he tells them. A problem
may seem hard at first, but after
you’ve solved ones like it
a few times, it becomes easier.
In a recent class, Rhea was helping
a student who was struggling with
a set of 10 problems. By the time
he got to the last one, the class
was almost over. But Rhea encouraged
him to try it—and the student
got it. “It was really great—I
don’t think I can convey the
feeling in words,” Rhea says.
The students fall in the medium-security
category, but the volunteers don’t
know what crimes they committed
or how much time they’re serving.
In the prison culture, it is considered
impolite to ask. A few of the students
have told their tutors that they’re
in for drug-related offenses, Rhea
Rhea has been part of the program
for two years, teaching algebra
and the introductory math courses.
His favorite part of the experience
has been seeing a change in the
attitude of the inmates. “As
they walk into class, they’re
not talking about whatever else
was going on in the cellblock that
about what math problems were hard
for them,” he says. “They’re
beginning to talk to each other
as educational peers, and they’re
developing a culture of learning.
It doesn’t get much more inspirational
than when you see that happening.”
Lewen says the benefits of having
the engineering volunteers aren’t
limited to helping an inmate solve
a tough algebraic equation. They
also give the inmates, many of whom
are working toward a four-year degree,
a great view of the vast options
in the field. “They’re
like little snapshots of the universe
of math and science today.”
Lynne Shallcross is an associate
editor at Prism.