THERE IS A COLLEGE in California whose campus, if it can be called that, consists of a few portable trailers. Classes are also taught inside a converted laundry facility whose walls don't reach the ceiling, where learning happens despite the din created by dozens of men in adjacent rooms vying for their teacher's attention. The school is called the Prison University Project (referred to affectionately as 'PUP' by students and instructors alike). It teaches 20 classes a semester and has a total enrollment of under 400 students.
The campus is housed within San Quentin State Penitentiary, also home to California's death row and to a reception center where new inmates are categorized and sorted by race and security level. Most prisoners then enter the general population at San Quentin, but some are sent to one of the state's thirty-two other prisons. Those who don't stay miss their chance at a college education, because no other prison in California offers one.
No one expects much of California's prisoners. Many of them have been locked up before. They “want to be called convicts, emphasis on the con,” a former PUP student told me about his fellow inmates. “Some might say this is not their first rodeo.” Chances are, they will be incarcerated again. Seventy percent of the state's inmates are arrested within three years of their release. And so, no one expected much of Leonard Hutton when he left San Quentin in 2008.
Hutton was convicted of a crime in Marin County. Normally, prisoners are paroled to the area their crime was committed in but Hutton's parole was transferred to Santa Rosa, a mid-sized city in the middle of wine country, 55 miles north of San Francisco. He had never been to Santa Rosa, and knew no one who lived there. He was 37 at the time, a multiple felon with a history of drug use and no marketable skills. His family was in Oakland, and the idea of beginning a new life alone in a strange city was terrifying. It would be easier to “start running from the gate,” he thought.
Violating the terms of his parole would have fit the pattern of Hutton's life neatly — from the age of 17 until his release he was rarely out of the state's custody — but that was not the decision he made. The few classes Hutton took with PUP “helped me reflect on what I had been doing with myself,” he says. Rather than following his gut instinct, sprinting the moment he heard the prison gate snap shut behind him, he played by the rules. He found a transitional living facility in Oakland that was willing to accept him, contacted his parole officer and requested a transfer that, to his surprise, was approved.
Oakland, a city of 400,000 just southeast of San Quentin, is an unlikely stage for a redemptive second act. When Hutton arrived in 2008, the city had the country's fifth highest crime rate, and almost two in 10 residents lived in poverty. But it was familiar to him; his son was there, and so was the community college where he planned to continue his education.
Laney College is a colorless Lego Land, built in a style best described as Soviet Modern. It has no manicured lawns, just expanses of concrete punctured by weather-beaten, sporadically placed trees. There is little about the place that inspires striving, or brings to mind thoughts of a brighter future. A sign ma...read more