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Gavilan Community College and San Benito County Sheriff’s Department team up to help jailed women and men

College’s jailhouse education program is designed to get inmates back to a productive life and reduce recidivism.
Photo by Jack Foley Gavilan Community College English instructor, Kimberly Smith, is one of two creative writing teachers in the school’s adult education program at San Benito County Jail. She is shown in a  Feb. 7 class of 13 male inmates. Smith is in her third year of the jail program and has taught at the college for 18 years.
Gavilan Community College English instructor, Kimberly Smith, is one of two creative writing teachers in the school’s adult education program at San Benito County Jail. She is shown in a Feb. 7 class of 13 male inmates. Smith is in her third year of the jail program and has taught at the college for 18 years.
Photo by Jack Foley With only a small pencil stub and a piece of blank paper, inmates embark on a voyage of words and ideas in a program it’s hoped will help them stay out of jail and find a productive path to follow when they finish their sentences. Other courses include high school equivalency work, career preparation and citizenship. Course work can be continued upon release at the San Benito County Probation Department’s Community Transition Center.

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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Jack Foley (jackmfoley)

Jack Foley is a veteran journalist on the BenitoLink team. Foley is a Pulitzer co-winner for the San Jose Mercury News staff’s coverage of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. He was also nominated for a Pulitzer by the Center for Public Interest Law for a highly-lauded series that exposed California’s lax policing of bad doctors. He is an experienced investigative reporter who worked for the San Jose Mercury News for more than 20 years. Foley covered San Benito County news on and off throughout his professional career. In addition to his more than three decades in journalism as a reporter, photojournalist and editor, Foley also has taught news writing at Gavilan College, worked in the nonprofit, affordable housing field, including in San Benito County, and has done high level public affairs work for NASA.

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