What does a criminologist do in her free time? Teach statistics in a prison, of course! You’re teaching … prison guards? No, I’m teaching inmates. What?! But… isn’t that dangerous? Are their guards with you in the classroom? Do you feel safe? These are often the first questions people ask me when I tell them I’m teaching through the Prison University Project in San Quentin State Prison.
Yes, I feel very safe. No, there’s no guard in the classroom with me. Prisoners can only take classes if they have (reached) a certain ‘safety level’: either they didn’t commit a violent offence or they have shown good behaviour in prison and have moved to a lower safety level. It’s a privilege to study through PUP and the students would be crazy to lose this opportunity by misbehaving in class. I feel that PUP students actually show more respect, motivation and interest than the average college student outside prison. The only situation I can imagine in which a student might hurt me is when he has mental health problems and ‘loses’ it. I think the chance of this happening is as big or small as in any teaching situation. Moreover, if this happened, I believe that the other students would help me out because they respect the teachers so much.
So, how does that work, teaching in prison? I teach Introduction in statistics to around 10 men. I’m responsible for one of the three times a week that they are being taught. Those two hours with the students are amazing. What I love about teaching is the fact that it brings me into a flow: there’s no room for distraction because there are 10 people to whom I’m trying to explain the material. Besides, I’m a geek and I love explaining statistics puzzles. There is an extra challenge since there are no computers that we can use. That again means there’s less distraction, also because I am not allowed to take anything inside apart from study materials.
Good swimmers for a raging sea
And then there’s the question that society wonders about: why would you teach prisoners anyway? I’ve discussed this issue before. I said that taking someone’s freedom is the punishment and we shouldn’t want to punish prisoners even more. Moreover, we obviously want to prevent reoffending after people leave prison. Employment and thus education are extremely important here. Many prisoners come from a disadvantaged background and never had the opportunity for good education, let alone a university education. PUP is an opportunity for these people to turn their lives around and become responsible, productive citizens. For the students’ responses to this question, click here.
Another aspect about teaching is that PUP creates an environment where everyone is respected, where the men can just be students, where they can have positive interactions with students and tutors. I cite my student Brian:
“The Prison University Project is an island in the raging sea of California Department of Corrections. We, the students, are a university community on the grounds of San Quentin Prison… The focus of our community is the university and its lighthouse of volunteer professors that guide us through the adventure of education. Students recognise how fortunate they are to have such a prominent pool of educators. Swimming in a rich pool develops good swimmers for a raging sea. I may be a prisoner, but thanks to all of you I am also a full-time student, working towards a positive goal, blind of prejudice, enriching the world.”
This week I started teaching Statistics in the new semester. I can’t wait to go into the flow every week, and to teach another group of students everything about proportions, confidence intervals, regression and significance!
*Sytske Besemer  did a PhD in Criminology and is doing a postdoc at University of California Berkeley. Photo credit: PUP.