FBB member and Prison University Project volunteer brings the classroom to San Quentin


Prison University ProjectBy Brittany Shoots-Reinhard

Mike Brown, a graduate student in biology at UC Berkeley and Foundation Beyond Belief member, has also spent four semesters volunteering for current FBB education beneficiary Prison University Project. Mike was also responsible for bringing PUP to the attention of FBB—he nominated the organization for consideration. He became involved with PUP by responding to a call for volunteers that went out to his department, but he was already aware of them from their exhibition at Alcatraz and from other volunteers in his department.

After attending a PUP training session for potential volunteer instructors, he became convinced that education could transform the lives of incarcerated students and reduce the likelihood that they might commit future crimes. He also realized that they could take their newfound learning home to their communities, which tend to be underserved and underrepresented in the sciences.

Mike has co-taught statistics, biology, and college-level algebra and will be the lead instructor for biology next term. While the instructors have limitations (e.g., lecturing without access to computers), they make do with handouts and white boards. The lab component is particularly challenging to make work with the limitations of the prison setting, but the PUP team and Mike have come up with some creative solutions. For example, they have done a dissection lab with sheep brains and plastic knives. Mike is specifically interested in molecular biology, so he and the PUP staffers are attempting to set up gel electrophoresis (an apparatus that separates molecular particles like DNA, RNA, and protein for analysis) in the prison.

Mike had this to say about his experience:

I haven’t had a Hollywood movie moment or anything. I think the inspiration more comes from the smaller day-to-day successes. The PUP students work full time and the situations in their cell blocks are often quite bad. But they’re just as committed to their studies, as intellectually curious, and as capable as most of the students in typical college settings. Surprisingly, one of the biggest issues I’ve come across is low self-esteem. So it’s rewarding every time I can teach a student a concept that he doubts he can learn at first. Every dawning of realization on their faces has felt significant.

There is very little, if any, public funding for projects like PUP, even though education for prisoners improves their lives, will help them find jobs after release, and is likely reduce crime rates. As a result, private donations, like the money that FBB members contribute, is that much more important. If you live near San Quentin and are interested helping PUP by volunteering, you can go to their website. You can also become an FBB member or manage your existing donation percentage assignment by logging in to the FBB website and selecting “Manage Account.” We also encourage you to nominate your favorite charities to be considered as featured beneficiaries.