South Tahoe grad teaches prisoners to read, write
January 20, 2010
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Allison Fernald, 21, spends three hours a week in a room with prisoners at San Quentin State Prison, teaching the men to read and write. The University of California, Berkeley, senior is enrolled in the school’s Teach in Prison program, which has taught basic skills to prisoners for the past decade.
Fernald, a political science major and 2006 graduate of South Tahoe High School, said the program has changed the course of her life.
“I want to continue to work in prison after this,” Fernald said. “That would be a pretty incredible thing to do with my life.”
Initially, the Teach in Prison program was created with the single goal of preparing inmate-students to gain their high school general education degree. Today, the program has grown to include the arts, English as a second language, vocational classes, film and print shop. More than 70 students cover the prison’s four-day school week, according to the school’s Web site.
“It’s really an opportunity to help people who are not otherwise helped,” Fernald said. “They are the people who were forgotten.”
Every week, the U.C. Berkeley student teachers meet to discuss their challenges and the curriculum. Once a week they meet at 7:45 a.m. to carpool 25 miles to San Quentin. From 9 to 11 a.m., they team-teach classes to the prisoners.
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To prepare for being in prison and in contact with the inmates, Fernald and the other students were coached on personal safety. Each student wears a whistle around their neck. To date, no one has had to blow the whistle, she said.
“I was definitely apprehensive at first,” Fernald said. “You’re dealing with people who have done some terrible things.”
The inmates have a strict protocol when interacting with the students: They’re not allowed to ask any personal questions or discuss anything but the curriculum at hand.
“It’s very focused on education,” she said. “I’ve never felt unsafe working with them.”
She said the inmates are enthusiastic about learning.
“They’re so grateful for the help,” she said.
Fernald recalled a radio segment she heard about theater groups performing Shakespeare in prison. The group’s founder said the prisoners talked about how it made them feel more human.
“I was working with someone who actually said that to me: ‘You make me feel human,'” Fernald said.
Most of the prisoners are reading and writing at a third-grade level. Some prisoners don’t know how to read at all, she said.
As part of the program, the university students toured the prison. Fernald said she was appalled by the size of the cells.
“I believe the current prison system is not helping people,” she said. “It’s making them worse.”
Fernald said the experience has also changed her perspective of “right and wrong.”
“It’s not always black and white,” she said. “One man stole a shopping cart full of baby food; now he’s in prison. It’s a complicated thing.”
Fernald said she believes some people do belong in prison, but that there should be alternatives for some offenders.
“There are bad people in there; I don’t want to lessen that,” she said. “But a lot of people shouldn’t be in prison. The should be in drug rehab or counseling – something that makes them better instead of worse.”