Why Teach Literature to Inmates in Prison for Life?

Volunteering at San Quentin to teach inmates literature was challenging but rewarding. That experience prepared me to serve Fair Observer's mission to inform and educate through diverse perspectives from around the world.
By Ti Ngo

May 01, 2024 03:46 EDT

Dear FO° Reader, 

In 2012, I volunteered to teach reading and writing composition along with literature to inmates at San Quentin Penitentiary. This was part of the Prison University Project, which has now become Mt. Tamalpais College. This prison is in the spectacular San Francisco Bay Area, which has been my home since I moved from Chicago to Berkeley over a decade ago.

By California standards, San Quentin is historic. Built in 1854, it is the oldest prison in California. It is also the only one where prisoners can receive the death penalty. Note that California has carried out no execution since 2006. Since its founding in 1854, San Quentin has been the location where hundreds of individuals were executed. Naturally, this is a maximum-security facility dreaded by prisoners and others alike.

San Quentin’s East Gate, the primary entrance for visitors and volunteers. Via Jesstess87 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of my life’s most challenging experiences

Teaching at San Quentin for a college-accredited program was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. For one, prison authorities inspected all materials we used for coursework. They rejected or redacted literature or art that contained any sections that the authorities deemed to be sexually provocative. The inmates’ access to information, aside from a small library, was severely limited. When prisoners had to write a research paper, we, the instructors, had to provide them with the reading materials.

Another little-known fact about US prisons is that they are racially segregated. San Quentin divides into four wards: “black,” “white,” “Hispanic,” and “other.” (Inmates of Asian descent make up most of “other.”) If there was a fight or trouble in one section, an instructor would find a third of his class missing the next day.

Teaching was also difficult for another important reason. The prison system is wary of volunteers making personal connections with inmates and potentially compromising security by doing them favors in the outside world. So, we were not allowed to ask prisoners about their personal background. The authorities forbade us to ask even benign questions such as “Where are you from?” let alone questions like “What got you here?” 

Students could volunteer information spontaneously, but the authorities did not allow us to ask follow-up questions. As a result, I only knew most of my students by their faces and names. Despite these limitations, my students put their heart into their coursework, even when they had to read difficult material ancient Greek plays like Antigone or Oedipus Rex. Needless to day, the enthusiasm of the prisoners surprised and inspired me.

A love of learning is very human

Importantly, many of the inmates were on life sentences. They were unlikely to ever see the outside world. This meant the original idea behind the program did not apply to them. This program is supposed to provide prison inmates with some higher education. In case they were paroled, the released prisoners would then be ready to go to school and find a job. This would reduce the high rate of recidivism in the US.

Teaching prison inmates made me realize more than any other experience that learning is a fundamental human instinct. To be curious, to learn about the past and to learn scientific principles is innate to us. One of my students was an inmate who could not be paroled. He was unlikely to ever see the outside world. When I asked this prisoner as to why he was taking so many literature courses, he said that the great works of the past freed him from the walls surrounding him. Reading literature enabled this prison inmate to experience another life and another time in history. Importantly, these great works helped him to understand the world outside his jail cell.

Philosophy and the other liberal arts appear to Boethius in prison. From a 1385 illuminated manuscript of On the Consolation of Philosophy by Gregorius of Genoa and the scribe “Brother Amadeus.” Via the University of Glasgow.

My former student’s words have stuck with me. I think of him often when I think of learning having an intrinsic value that is impossible to quantify. It is the reason why I keep coming back to Fair Observer. 

FO°, as we often refer to our organization, allows me to gain perspectives and insights from a diverse range of people and regions outside the bounds of my own small world. A recent article on “Kashmir’s Forgotten Houseboats” brought alive a tradition, history and place that I didn’t even know existed. Instead of feeding me content based on what I saw or liked, FO° expands my mind. Unlike social media Goliaths in the San Francisco Bay Area that make us prisoners of  their algorithms of social media,  FO° opens what the English poet John Keats called “charm’d magic casements” to unknown worlds.

I am now both a volunteer CFO and a monthly donor to Fair Observer. I urge you to help FO° carry out its mission as well. Any amount, large or small, makes a huge difference for our small organization. Even if you are on a tight budget, surely you can sign up to donate $1 per year and enable us to open magic casements for readers like you from around the world.


Ti Ngo
Chief Financial Officer 

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