Interview: Prison University Project’s influence on one incarcerated man at San Quentin


Prison University ProjectBy AJ Chalom

Dave was born and raised in Pittsburgh in a stable household. He went to private school, joined the air force. During that time, Dave reconnected with a girlfriend who had a history of violence, and the relationship continued against his family’s advice. A cycle of violence perpetuated itself, and someone Dave loved deeply was being threatened. Dave withdrew and deteriorated, and then he took another person’s life. He was sentenced to 25 years to life. Dave served a total of 22 years, 4 months, and 12 days in prison for his actions.

His dad said, “You are always going to make mistakes—just don’t make mistakes you can’t recover from. You may have done that, but whether you recover depends on what you do from here on out.” Dave took from this a revolutionary idea that maybe he could recover from this. He wanted to recover and regain who he was. He had to make a decision to not let the system change him.

Dave had to learn to live with himself. For years after being incarcerated, he wouldn’t look at himself in the mirror. But he finally faced himself, and that was a first step. He started taking advantage of any program within the system that he could benefit from.

Prison University Project class discussionDave became aware of Prison University Project (PUP) accidently; he was mistakenly sent to San Quentin in a transfer in 2002, instead of back to his previous prison. One of the first things he saw was a list on the wall to sign up for college. He did this immediately. Once his prison counselor noticed Dave wasn’t supposed to be there, they talked. His counselor asked what he wanted to do. His response: “Well, I am in college now, so I would rather stay.”

I spoke with Dave about his experiences with PUP.

AJ: How would you say the decision to participate in PUP affected your time in prison, and the lives of other incarcerated men?

Dave: It affected my time by providing me with yet another avenue to develop myself. It also affected my time in that I had time to interact with a lot of people that were not incarcerated. That was so important, because it was part of bringing the outside values that would not be part of the prison environment naturally. It also gave me the opportunity to tutor and teach other men. I became a clerk of the program while still incarcerated. Other men began to depend on me. I started to develop relationships with men that would not do a lot of programs.

Dave, Prison University ProjectI asked Dave what his educational goals were before he was in prison and what educational goals he met in PUP’s program. He said that before he was incarcerated, his educational goals were what he needed to learn to keep a job. His goals were simply vocational skills, leading to his decision to join the air force.

When he joined PUP, his education goals changed. He knew the jobs that would be available to him as a prisoner would be limited, so he had to academically upgrade. Furthermore, going to classes exposed him to readings and topics that he would not usually be exposed to. He realized he could only begin to pay his debt to society by working for the betterment of society.

Dave knew he needed to learn whatever he could to learn to be productive and make a real change to society. He earned an associate degree through PUP. He is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State University in public policy, political science, or criminal justice. Dave is also the administrative assistant for Prison University Project.

AJ: What made you decide to work for PUP?

Dave: I fell in love with the volunteers. . . . PUP has been a major force inside, probably without even realizing it. I gained respect from the nonstop work that PUP’s employees and volunteers did.

These volunteers were intent on serving a vulnerable population, which Dave also wanted to do. It seemed like an easy and natural transition.

AJ: What is your advice to an incarcerated person who is unsure about the PUP program?

Dave: Getting an education is a key to success in every other area in life. Getting an education will help them develop the critical thinking skills to help them succeed in any other job that they are going to do.

AJ: Do see a role for PUP for long-time prison population?

Dave: [PUP] provides some normalcy in an environment that is not normal. Helps guys develop self-esteem and helps them communicate in a variety of ways. The long-timers are the stabilizers in the prison. PUP helps them gain a variety of skills in managing the more immature prison population.

Another thing that it does for long-timers is that it gives them hope. Many of them feel like they are not going to be able to get manual-labor jobs because they are going to be older, so they NEED the education so they can find other opportunities.

Dave concludes, “It is important for us to remember that we are all much more than the worst thing that we have ever done.”