By Olivia Lee
Last fall, SJSU’s Record Clearance Project (RCP) partnered with Santa Clara County to form a two-year program providing credit-bearing GE courses to the inmates of Elmwood Correctional Facility, a county jail in Milpitas.
Philosophy professors Tony Nguyen and Trevor Gullion and English professor Tommy Mouton taught three out of the eight courses offered, demonstrating their commitment to reach out to the community.
RCP, directed by Justice Department’s Dr. Peggy Stevenson, is a class project that gives SJSU students hands-on experience with the law and court system. Under Stevenson’s guidance, students provide legal information to help former and current inmates legally expunge their records, giving them a second chance in life.
Part of the project took place in Elmwood Jail to educate inmates on their legal rights. After taking a survey from the inmates, Stevenson discovered that 92 percent of the inmates said they would like to further their education. Thus, JS 140: Record Clearance Project was taught at Elmwood as the first pilot class.
Over time, the education program developed to include other GE courses from the College of Humanities and the Arts as well as the College of Education. The program aims to empower inmates with skills to help them integrate back into society.
One challenge, the instructors explained, was getting past the stigma associated with the inmates.
“When I first said yes, I was really intimidated even though I knew intellectually that it was a good thing to go,” says Nguyen, who taught Phil 61: Moral Issues at the women’s jail.
During Nguyen’s first day, he met the correctional officer for the female inmates. His doubts soon went away after the guard told him that the women wanted to know if the course was going to be difficult.
“That’s when I realized they are as nervous as I am,” Nguyen explains.
Nguyen focused on the traditional canon of philosophy rather than contemporary issues like abortion and gun control, as these topics were too close to many inmates’ personal lives.
He noted that the inmates were serious about their academics as they analyzed works from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Students learned to evaluate their own situations and experiences using philosophical moorings from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Beauvoir’s analysis of socially constructed gender roles, and more.
Like Professor Nguyen, Professor Gullion also experienced the same initial anxiety when he first taught Phil 57: Logic and Critical Reasoning at the men’s jail.
“But after about 15 minutes, it all went away,” Gullion explains, “because you realized the majority of them are in the class because they just want to make their lives better.”
The stigmatization of inmates did not only affect the instructors. As Gullion points out, “The biggest hurdle was their own self-confidence,” as many inmates have internalized the negative perceptions of themselves and lacked academic confidence. He reassured students that no matter what their levels were, his course is there to help them build their skills.
“Once they got a hang of the fact that ‘the instructor is not going to call me stupid’ or anything like that, they started open up a little more and became willing to engage,” says Gullion.
Session after session, students came to his class ready to confront difficult philosophical questions. They discussed how reality is defined and what constitutes reality and investigated logical patterns of argumentation.
Overall, the professors’ descriptions of their coursework show that the program’s classes are just as vigorous as the ones taught on campus. And despite being incarcerated, the students in Elmwood are up for the challenge.
This semester, Professor Mouton’s English 1A: First Year Writing demonstrates how Elmwood inmates are serious students. Mouton aims to help inmates improve their literacy so that they can advocate for themselves. And his positive teaching methods are observably effective. Not only are his students attentive, they also actively participate by asking questions and contributing to class discussions.
Many of Mouton’s students are eager to be in his class and to continue their education.
Rick, who has taken three courses in the program, notes how each professor “sets the tone and bar” for inmates “to learn at a college level, one step at a time.” And Dustin, another classmate, reveals that many others wanted to be in the program but couldn’t due to enrollment limits.
Other students express how they have never considered higher education prior to this program. Sam, for instance, states that the Elmwood courses “introduced college culture to [him].” And Louie, who hasn’t taken an English class in 15 years, is thankful for Mouton’s teaching methods and the second chance of rebuilding his skills.
One student named Marvin reveals that he had given up on schooling. Before incarceration, he had enrolled in other community colleges but never finished the courses.
“But [Mouton’s] class encourages me to keep going,” Marvin says. “Thanks for coming at this time of my life.”
From the hopeful comments in Mouton’s classroom, it’s not hard to see the program’s positive impact on the students.
The director and educator of the program, Michele Burns, plans to reapply for its continuation and advocate for more educational support in Santa Clara County jails overall.
As a woman who came from a rural and disadvantaged community, Burns empathizes with the economic and social disparity that many inmates suffer from.
“The program understands the social injustices affecting communities that don’t have access to proper support system like education,” says Burns, “and that an unproportional amount of inmates come from those underserved communities.”
The education program is crucial in helping inmates get back on their feet once they are released. She hopes that it will continue beyond its initial two-year plan, giving SJSU professors more opportunity to connect with this incarcerated population.