Inmates at San Benito County Jail are headed back to school, thanks to Gavilan Community College and a corrections system that believes it’s the right thing to do.
And it’s all being done behind bars.
The school just launched its newest semester of free, non-credit jailhouse courses for men and women whose crimes or alleged crimes, have put them behind bars, possibly for years.
The county’s head jailer could not be more pleased.
“The more we can get inmates into these programs the better off we’ll be,” said San Benito County Sheriff’s Department Captain Tony Lamonica.
“They are inmates because they made mistakes. It’s our opportunity to educate these guys and gals so we can send them out into society and make them proud people in the community; some of them have just had bad luck in their lives.”
Lamonica was tapped six months ago by Sheriff Darren Thompson to head the department’s Custody Division and holds the title of Jail Commander.
At Gavilan College, sentiment about the mission to serve inmates is serious. It also involves boots-on-the-ground personal experience at the highest level.
More than 30 years ago, College President Kathleen Rose taught yoga in such a program at New York State’s notorious maximum security prison, Attica Corrections Facility.
"Jail programs like the one Gavilan is offering at San Benito County Jail are often the first step for incarcerated men and women to see themselves in a new way, one that is guided by the change that education can bring to alter the course of one’s life,” Rose told BenitoLink.
“Even in my experience with prison programs in the '70s I observed the positive outcome of similar programs. I am proud that Gavilan is in partnership with the jail and the Transition Center in this developing program."
Associate Dean Randy Brown added, “The whole idea for us is to re-engage people with education as a pathway for them.
“One of our target areas is connecting more with people who are incarcerated, it’s an important population to get connected with,” said Brown, a Hollister resident who oversees Gavilan’s Community Development and Grants Management departments.
Indeed, by the end of this 16-week semester, which mirrors that of the college itself, it's expected that about 300 inmates will have attended one or more of the classes offered at the Flynn Road jail, according to Brown.
Last semester, 307 inmates took advantage of the program and 73 of those took writing classes, he said.
The program also includes counselors who help inmates look at career options they might explore upon release.
Gavilan’s offerings are part of an adult education consortium that includes the Gilroy-based college and school districts in San Benito and south Santa Clara counties.
The program is funded in part with monies from an annual $500,000 state Adult Education Block Grant the school receives and in-kind expenses, such as his own time, Brown said.
Inmates, when released, can continue their coursework at the San Benito County Probation Department’s new Community Transition Center on San Felipe road, according to Lamonica.
It’s all part of the county’s efforts to reduce recidivism and help former inmates prepare for a better, more productive future.
Efforts will continue and hopefully expand when the new jail under construction opens in 2019, he said.
“A lot of time jails just release people, but sometimes these people need a little boost, a little encouragement. We do care about them,” Lamonica added.
The transition center is open to any member of the community interested in its educational and other resources.
Courses offered at the center and jail include citizenship, personal and career development, English as a second language, vocational courses, GED or high school equivalency diploma classes and writing, including creative writing.
Kimberly Smith has taught English composition and creative writing for 18 years on Gavilan’s faculty. She also runs the college’s Writing Center. It offers a variety of writing workshops.
Now in her third year teaching in the jailhouse program, Smith thinks it’s very special and rewarding work.
“My experience with the students has been extremely positive, some of the best teaching experiences I have ever had in my life,” she said.
Men and women are taught in separate weekly classes that include from four to 20 inmates and last about an hour. Toward the end of each semester, inmates produce a book of their written works.
Brown has read some of it and said, “It’s always really amazing stuff; their work is really intense and emotional.”
Smith added, “I can’t emphasize how tender the experience is, how open and thoughtful the students are and how many important things they have to share about our community.”
And that comes through most powerfully, she said, in creative writing classes when inmates pen poetry.
“I have never experienced a poem coming alive as much as it does inside a jail,” Smith said.
Inmates who attended sessions on Feb. 7 said the courses are worthwhile and helpful.
“I love coming to this class, I learn a lot,” said a woman in Nick Fortino’s Personal and Career Development class. A Ph.D., Fortino teaches psychology at the college and also is a yoga instructor.
His class discussion about behavior patterns and topics such as neurotransmission and how drugs interfere with decision making intrigued his students, who said they want to come to the classes.
“It’s not only because it gets us out of our cells, but it opens up my mind,” one inmate said.
Another said the class gives her more insights into her own behavior and greater self-awareness, “So I’ll be able to make better choices, not just for me but for my family.”
In Kimberly Smith’s men’s creative writing class the same day, an inmate said he likes “being part of something” and that the sessions give him “something to look forward to” as he serves out his sentence.
So popular are the writing classes that a new, part-time instructor was hired this semester, but carefully, according to Brown.
“We screened very heavily for that placement,” he added. “And we had her observe other classes and talk with instructors. It’s a very challenging and really intense instructional environment.”
New instructor Julie Morris is no stranger to the world of writing. A novelist, journalist and co-founder of BenitoLink, she brings to the job a keen understanding of the transformative aspects of the written word.
“Writing is a powerful tool. It can heal wounds, foster rehabilitation and allow for a creative outlet. We all have stories to tell,” she said.
Smith added, “It’s challenging to find someone who will come in consistently. I am really excited because Julie is a writer. It’s super important for someone to come in with that experience, it’s really beneficial to the students.”
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