A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.
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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.
Short on time? Here are the highlights:
- This week, Lonnie Morris tells Charlotte West about his journey to become one of the first men to earn a bachelor’s degree from San Quentin State Prison in California.
- The next issue of College Inside will feature coverage from the National Conference in Higher Education in Prison in Atlanta, Nov. 9-11. Get live updates on Twitter and LinkedIn during the conference.
- Here’s the recording of a panel on Pell for prison librarians organized by Ithaka S+R. (The page also includes links to a bunch of helpful resources). Related: Check out our FAQ on Pell in prison.
- ICYMI: We looked at a pre-apprenticeship in Washington state designed to introduce incarcerated women to the trades.
“You need to stop having your pity parties and do the work”
By Lonnie Morris as told to Charlotte West
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
When I went to prison in ’78, they only had high school diplomas or the GED, depending on which prison you were in. I think maybe you could take some correspondence courses and they had a teacher that would help facilitate that process. That was about it.
They brought in a pilot program for a bachelor’s [degree] from Antioch University to San Quentin in 1984 or 1985. That’s when I first kind of got aware of it. Before that, they had some little classes here and there. There was no consistency until like the mid 90s, when Patten College came in with the Prison University Project [now Mount Tamalpais College].
I had dropped out of high school. I got back in school when I went to prison, where I got a GED. And that was just something to do. I also wanted to get into the trade program, and they wanted you to have a high school diploma.
What happened was, they brought the program in, and they were recruiting people to participate. And one of my friends told me about it, and said, ‘Hey, man, this is a really cool program. They got some women up there, and you might want to go check it out.’
So I really went to go see the women, to be honest. I didn’t really go to get into college. That was like a byproduct of it. That’s the truth.
They used experiential knowledge coupled with your high school diploma. So once I qualified, I started thinking, ‘Well, you know what, let me just see what this thing does.’ And so I just kind of stuck with it. And, the next thing you know, one year, another year, and so on. And then three or four years go by, and I was graduating.
‘I’ve always been a person that loves to learn, but I wasn’t the best student’
San Quentin State Prison. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus.
It was kind of like a slow-going process, where I started getting exposed to people in the academic world. I’ve always been a person that loves to learn, but I wasn’t the best student. Even though I was haphazardly going in and out of school over my teen years, just getting back into a learning environment where it was new experiences, new information, new knowledge, it kind of stimulated my interest. Then, I understood, ‘Oh, this is something I could try to do.’ But I was still kind of in and out of really completing my assignments.
I didn’t like the formal part of it. I didn’t like sitting in those classrooms, listening to somebody tell you about something. That wasn’t really my cup of tea. But you know, I stuck with it.
I graduated in 1988. But prison is a place where nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to happen. And so we didn’t actually have our graduation ceremony till 1989. So myself and two other guys were the first three people to ever graduate from San Quentin State Prison with a bachelor’s degree.
Prison has what we call a grapevine, where the word of mouth spreads fast about education. People started gravitating towards San Quentin. But more importantly, for a lot of us, it was about getting out of prison. And so, guys understood that if you get an education, or get a trade, these are things that are feathers in your cap towards getting yourself out of prison. And for most of us, that’s our main goal – to get out of prison so we can come back and live our lives.
One of the fundamental things that education did for me, I’d say, is the fact of being able to actually accomplish something in my life. At one point I was gonna give up on the college program. I just wasn’t doing the work. I had a lot of personal trauma going on. All that stuff impacts your ability to focus and function in a college environment.
I was slacking and my faculty supervisor – her name was Carol Foster – just kind of pulled me aside and said to me, ‘Listen, man, there are people who would die to get the opportunity you have, where you’re getting a full-ride paid for by the Pell Grant. You need to stop having your pity parties and feeling sorry for yourself and get about the business of doing the work. We can get somebody else to take your place.’
Carol asked me a fundamental question: ‘Have you ever completed anything in your life?’ And I had to look at that and say, ‘Honestly, no.’ Up to that point, I never completed anything. I dropped out of high school and dropped out of everything that I’ve been involved in.
She really helped me a lot. And she was kind of like the catalyst that helped me recognize that I could do more in my life and be a little more than I gave myself credit for.
Lonnie Morris served more than 40 years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation before he was released in 2021. He is the co-founder of No More Tears, a violence- and crime-prevention program at San Quentin.
++ “Studying inside at age 87.”
++ They saw the demise of college in prison. Thirty years later, it’s coming back. Four lifers on the return of Pell Grants.
++ A job readiness program at San Quentin helps men translate their achievements inside for prospective employers.
Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.
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