light in san quinten

story by Andre Briscoe photo by Anda Chu

San Francisco State University Magazine

IT'S A LATE Wednesday evening and Manny Dominguez is about to leave his classroom. As he walks toward the door, one of his students stops him. "Hey, thanks for showing me how to do that math problem. It came up on my GED exam, so I passed the test," says his student. Dominguez responds, "No problem, that's what I'm here for."

Dominguez teaches math to children at Marin Primary School in nearby Larkspur. He also tutors children privately. But on Wednesday evenings, Dominguez climbs into his blue 1987 Nissan pick-up truck heading off to teach a captive audience of students who differ dramatically from the students at Marin Primary.

As he drives past the picturesque hillsides that give Marin its scenic beauty and past the yachts and small boats that line the harbor of Larkspur, Dominguez is able to see his third classroom. A native of New York City, Dominguez has taught students the fundamentals of algebra in many different settings, but he's never been body-searched before entering a classroom.

Around 6 p.m., Dominguez walks past three barbed-wire fences to his classroom where he teaches inmates at San Quentin State Penitentiary. San Quentin is home to over 5,800 of California's 145,000 inmates. Dominguez is one of a handful of instructors who volunteer their time and energy toward teaching inmates in this medium-security prison.

California has 33 prisons scattered throughout the state. The California State Prison Literacy Act requires these prisons to offer educational programs to inmates who test poorly academically. But a study conducted by the Little Hoover Commission, a 13-member advisory board authorized by the state to evaluate the efficiency of prison agencies, was critical of the education program.

The commission, which investigates the operation of state government agencies, found that the California Department of Corrections has no responsibility to get actual results from these programs. According to the study, the CDC has no proven method to help meet the goal of educating prison inmates. The report goes further to say that the Prison Literacy Act "lacks focus" and "has a faulty management structure."

The report also calls the sentencing structure of California's prison system an impediment to inmate rehabilitation. In 1977, Determinate Sentencing, whereby inmates are given a fixed number of years or months in prison for a given crime, went into effect in the state of California. Under Determinate Sentencing, inmates aren't required to participate in educational programs or vocational training as a condition of their release. The Hoover commission report criticizes Determinate Sentencing, saying that because inmates aren't required to go through education programs as a condition of their release the alternative has been to "simply churn criminals through the system without ever trying to induce change in behavior, attitudes or prospects."

In contrast, the Hoover commission spoke more favorably of Indeterminate Sentencing system, under which inmates must prove they've completed education, counseling and training programs which better prepare them for life on the outside before they can be released. According to the Hoover commissions study, "providing education and training programs at least gives inmates an option for a life free of crime-- a factor in protecting public safety."

The study links the high rate of recidivism with the lack of effective education programs in California prisons. The Hoover commission report states that the number of former inmates returning to prison has doubled since the implementation of Determinate Sentencing.

Although the California Prison system has not stressed the education of inmates over the last twenty years, the idea hasn't been lost. Terry Lee Guilford recalled the economics class he took while an inmate at Folsom state prison. Guilford, who earned his Bachelor of Arts in Social Science in 1990, had no particular interest in economics. It was only a requirement of the prison which was connected to Sacramento City College. Later he was told by his instructor that he did better in the class than other students she taught outside of prison.

"I just took to it like a duck in water," says Guilford, who went on to get his bachelor degree after being transferred to Soledad State Prison, where he was involved in an education program developed between Soledad and San Jose State University. "People need to hear stories like mine, I was in the program because I wanted to better myself." Two years after Guilford received his degree, the San Jose State University-Soledad program was dismantled.

San Quentin offers Philosophy, Sociology, English and others college courses to inmates who want to take them. At present, San Quentin inmates can receive only their Associate degree. But Sean McPhetridge, who helps run San Quentin's program, expects that in a few years it will be upgraded to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree.

"I believe we are the rehabilitative aspect of what might be considered a punitive system," says McPhetridge, who last semester began teaching a Spanish class. He calls the inmates he taught one of the most motivated groups he's ever been involved with.

Manny Dominguez strives to incorporate this motivation and involvement with all his students. Dominguez's wife Judy doesn't understand why her husband to relates so closely to convicts. To her, having a close relationship with their two teenage sons should be his main focus. To Judy's displeasure, her husband has developed close friendships with some of his students. He and one former inmate became very close and Dominguez would invite him over on the weekends.

The 13 inmates Dominguez teaches intermediate algebra to remind him of his childhood playmates in Manhattan. They were street-tough kids who mimicked the dangerous world around them in the games they'd play. That's the parallel Dominguez draws between the youth of his childhood and the inmates he teaches.

"That's why I keep going back," he says. "There's a playfulness, warmth and friendship the inmates have among each other, along with a willingness to get physical if the situation called for it."

Dominguez refers to what he does as "digging a tunnel into the prison." He reveals much of his life experiences to inmates in hopes that they may inturn relate some of their life experiences with his. In this way he creates a positive learning environment, in a place where positive thoughts are scarce. "It gives these guys the opportunity to show what they can do," says Dominguez. "I go to San Quentin for these moments."

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