Behind a fortress wall and razor wire a few feet away from California’s death row, students at a unique college discuss the 9/11 attacks and issues of morality, identity and nationalism. Dressed in matching blue uniforms, the students break from their discussion only when a guard enters the classroom, calling out each man’s last name and waiting for them to reply with the last two digits of their inmate number, the Associated Press reports. They are students at Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State Prison, the first accredited junior college based behind bars. Inmates can take classes in literature, astronomy, American government, precalculus and others to earn an Associate of Arts degree. “This is a profound step forward in prison education,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, the umbrella organization for all U.S. higher education institutions. Mitchell said Mount Tamalpais College is “an extraordinary model” that will give it autonomy not seen in prison programs attached to outside schools.
Any general population San Quentin inmate with a high school diploma or GED certificate is eligible to attend. The 539 death row inmates are excluded. Guards check the IDs of students coming to classes held in trailers set up on one edge of the prison’s exercise yard, where students stop to discuss their assignments as corrections officers watch from four towers above. The college is one of dozens of educational, job training and self-help programs available to the 3,100 inmates in the medium-security portion of San Quentin, making it a desired destination for inmates statewide who lobby to be transferred there. The college’s $5 million annual budget is funded by private donations, with a paid staff and volunteer faculty, many of them graduate students from top universities, including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.