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Cover Story

October 22, 2007
Volume 85, Number 43
pp. 17-22

Chemistry Behind Bars

While balancing equations, inmates at San Quentin learn to balance their lives

Linda Wang

TO GET PAST the triple set of iron gates of California's notorious San Quentin State Prison, I must abide by the following rules: No cell phones, cameras, or recording devices. No backpacks, purses, or wallets. And no blue or orange clothing, because those are the colors that the inmates wear.

Heather Rowley
Molecules And Moles Inmate Harrison Seuga studies the ACS textbook "Chemistry in Context."

As I am being escorted across the prison yard to the modular education building, I'm moved by the sight of several hundred inmates dressed in prison-issued blue denim uniforms exercising and playing sports. They look just like ordinary people, and my initial fears about visiting this place subside. I'm here to observe a general chemistry course being offered for the first time to inmates taking part in the College Program at San Quentin.

The classroom looks like one found in elementary school. Colorful posters adorn the walls, and the students sit two or three to a table. In front of the room is a dry-erase board and an overhead projector. There are no computers and no visual aids; it's chemistry without the frills.

When the instructor, Charles (Chip) Crawford, asks, "Who can describe what an ionic bond is?" five hands go up. "It's where two atoms share an electron," one student offers. "That's a covalent bond," Crawford says, correcting the student. And he proceeds to explain what an ionic bond is. The students—16 inmates, each wielding a calculator and the American Chemical Society textbook "Chemistry in Context: Applying Chemistry in Society"—are reviewing for their final exam.

From May through August, the class met for four hours every Friday. Starting with around 30 students, the class ended up with 17 taking the final exam. Crawford, a fourth-year chemistry graduate student in the lab of Alexander Pines at the University of California, Berkeley, taught the course with fellow UC Berkeley grad students Michael Rousseas (physics), Alex Fabrikant (computer science), and Erik Douglas (bioengineering).

The grad students say that these prisoners are some of the most motivated and hard-working students they have ever taught. The prisoners, in turn, say that these volunteers have inspired them to work hard and seek a better life for themselves. The truth is, this unusual chemistry class has changed the lives of everyone involved.

Public Information Office, San Quentin State Prison
Picturesque San Quentin overlooks the San Francisco Bay.

Studies show that prisoners who participate in educational programming are at a lower risk of relapsing into crime after being released from prison. A 2001 study conducted by the Correctional Education Association, for instance, reported that prisoners who participated in correctional education were 29% less likely to be incarcerated again than prisoners who did not participate in such programming.

In the late 1980s, the number of higher education programs in U.S. prisons soared to 350. Many prisoners enrolled in these programs were eligible for Federal Pell Grants???which are typically given to low-income undergraduate students???to help pay their tuition fees. In 1994, however, the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act banned the distribution of Pell Grants for inmate higher education. Consequently, the number of prison higher education programs dropped to fewer than 10 by 1996.

THAT SAME YEAR, a group of volunteers, together with Patten University in Oakland, Calif., initiated the College Program at San Quentin, which is supported entirely by donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations and relies on volunteers to provide instruction. A majority of these volunteers are graduate students from nearby colleges and universities who hear about the opportunity through word of mouth.

Volunteer instructors must attend an orientation session where they are given the rundown about what to expect and where program staff address safety concerns. Crawford says he feels safe inside the prison. In fact, he says, on his first day of teaching, he was more concerned about getting through the security gates than about his safety.

No untoward incident has occurred inside the classroom, according to Jody Lewen, director of the College Program at San Quentin and executive director of the nonprofit Prison University Project (, which provides funding and other support for the program. The inmates know that if anything bad were to happen, the college program would be discontinued, she says.

Outside the prison gates, San Quentin is picturesque, located on the southern tip of Marin County, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The 155-year-old all-male prison is surrounded by razor wire and granite walls, but on a clear day, inmates can still see the top of Mount Tamalpais from the lower prison yard.

The prison houses 1,700 medium-security inmates in its general population, 3,500 inmates in transition to other prisons, and 600 inmates on death row. Only the 1,700 inmates in the general population are eligible for the college program, provided they have a high school diploma or a General Education Development (GED) certificate.

Students can enroll in a number of courses, including Calculus 1 (MTH 230), Biology (BIO 151), Environmental Science (EST 204)—and now Chemistry (CHM 111). Each course lasts 13 weeks and is worth three credits. Inmates who complete 60 credit units can earn an associate of arts degree in liberal arts. So far, 68 inmates have completed their degrees while at San Quentin.

San Quentin is an atypical state prison, Lewen says. It's one of only a handful in the country that offers higher education courses to its inmates in a classroom setting rather than through distance learning. Even fewer prison education programs have offered chemistry.

"Chemistry sounds scary to prison administrators," Lewen says, explaining that officials are concerned that inmates could learn how to make illegal drugs or explosives. "But a lot of the obstacles that you run into are people's imaginations," she adds.

Eric Messick, a correctional lieutenant and public information officer at San Quentin, acknowledges that security is a significant consideration. However, he says, the prison staff realize that the benefit of offering a chemistry course outweighs any potential risk.

Leif Schroeder
Teaching Team UC Berkeley grad students Douglas (from left), Crawford, Rousseas, and Fabrikant share the teaching load.

THE IDEA for teaching chemistry came from Crawford, who approached Lewen last year after having taught several semesters of remedial math at the prison. In fact, Lewen says, many of the courses offered by the College Program at San Quentin have originated from graduate students who have expressed interest in teaching a particular subject. Because more and more science graduate students have volunteered, she points out, the number of science courses the program offers has risen steadily.

But because chemistry is so heavily lab-based, it presented a new set of challenges. For example, everything that Crawford wanted to bring in for class demonstrations had to be approved in advance by the warden and other prison administrators. Part of the challenge, he says, is explaining in layman's terms the nature of the chemicals and materials he wants to bring in. "It was just going back and forth making it clear what I was doing and what the chemicals were going to be used for," he says.

Getting permission to bring the materials in is one thing; actually getting them through the gate is another. Crawford recalls arriving for the first day of chemistry class with baking soda and vinegar in amounts slightly different from what he had told prison administrators he would have. He wasn't allowed to bring the materials in. "You can't just bring something in," he says. "When you tell the warden, 'I'm going to bring in x, y, and z,' you have to bring in x, y, and z."


The Next Best Thing

The inmates in chemistry class at California's San Quentin State Prison didn???t have access to live demonstrations. Instead, volunteer instructor Chip Crawford, a grad student at University of California, Berkeley, taped several experiments done by chemistry instructors at UC Berkeley and showed the video clips in class.

Courtesy of Chip Crawford and Lonnie Martin

Watch what happens when different alkali metals are added to water, a rubber band is exposed to ozone, permanganate is mixed with hydrogen peroxide, and a quarter of a donut is immersed in liquid oxygen.

* Macromedia Flash Player 8 is required to view video.

As it turns out, the class didn't allow enough time for demonstrations, but Crawford had a backup. He had videotaped several demonstrations, and he used the resulting DVDs in class. Some ideas for the videos and the class came from staff members in the UC Berkeley chemistry department, including Lonnie Martin, head of demonstrations, and Michelle Douskey, a physical chemistry lecturer, he says.

Martin helped set up the video demonstrations, and Douskey suggested Crawford have his students critique newspaper articles and evaluate the information on the basis of what they've learned in class. Crawford says the critiques helped the students connect classroom topics with what was happening in the outside world. It was Douskey who recommended using the ACS textbook, which Crawford says he and his fellow instructors followed closely. The publisher, McGraw-Hill, donated the books to the program.

The students ranged dramatically in terms of educational background. For some students, this chemistry course was their first college-level science course. Other students had earned advanced degrees prior to imprisonment. "It's really difficult to know how to teach when I don't know where these guys are coming from and where they're going," Crawford says.

Nevertheless, Crawford and his coinstructors tried to squeeze in as much practical chemistry as they could over the 13 weeks of the course. "I could have taught a standard freshman chemistry course, but those courses are geared for students to take a second semester of chemistry," Crawford says. "I viewed this class as a one-shot deal. This is a chance not to give them a foundation for future chemistry courses but to give them an idea of how it all comes together and how chemists approach a problem."

Heather Rowley
Solid Commitment Crawford is an enthusiastic teacher.

Rousseas agrees. "I'm not training these guys to become scientists," he says. "I'm trying to get them excited about the world through a scientific point of view. They have a lot of time to sit and think, and when they're sitting there letting their minds roam, can a background in science guide some of their thoughts?"

Because students need only one science course for their degrees, it might have been better for the program to offer an integrated science course rather than individual science subjects, Crawford says. But given that the program relies on volunteers, it's important to take advantage of available resources, he explains. "It's better to do something than to get bogged down trying to do something perfectly," he says. By teaching something he's passionate about, Crawford adds, his enthusiasm comes through. And teaching the course with grad students from other science disciplines has encouraged thinking from different perspectives.

San Quentin State Prison inmate Michael Gallardo is a heavy-set but soft-spoken man who has a bachelor's degree in business from the Philippines. He says the class has made him aware of his role in protecting the environment. Before the class, he says, he had wanted to get a Hummer after leaving prison. Now, he says, he'd rather get a hybrid because it's better for the environment.

SOME STUDENTS are frustrated with the lack of access to labs to help them visualize cause-and-effect relationships in chemistry. But they make do. "You have to learn to use your imagination," says inmate Rick Branson, who is taking chemistry for the first time.

Branson, whose tough exterior contrasts with his apparent gentility, plans to continue his education after he leaves prison and would like to pursue a degree in psychology. It's ironic, he says, that it took going to prison for him to realize the value of education. "I tried to do college on the outside. You're concerned about your bills, your rent, your family. Here, I have the opportunity to pursue an education without the outside interferences," he says.

Heather Rowley
Bright Future Inmate Scott plans on starting a business in toxic waste cleanup after leaving San Quentin.

Inmate Rodney Scott is easygoing and talks in a manner that conveys a sense of lightheartedness. He is also taking chemistry for the first time and says he wants to start a business in toxic waste cleanup after he leaves San Quentin. He used to clean up toxic waste on the street, he says. "Now, with my chemical background, I have a better understanding than I had before. Now, I'll know how to neutralize things and understand how it happens."

In class, Scott and his classmates appear eager to learn; they ask questions if they don't understand a concept. They act as if education has become a priority in their lives.

For all the seriousness in class, there are lighter moments as well. "A good number of the students have taken to looking for mistakes in the textbook," Fabrikant says. One time, he recalls, a student pointed to a structure for methamphetamine and said he believed that the structure was incorrect.

Crawford says he never asks the students about the crimes they committed. "I want to think of my students as students," he says. "I'd be afraid that knowing what they did would really influence how I interact with them. I would like for them to have a place where for four hours, they're students, and that's all they are."

Rousseas agrees. "I'm not there to question who they are or what they've done. I'm just there to teach them chemistry," he says. "I feel like I'm giving them an escape from all this other stuff."

The inmates say they consider it an enormous privilege to take the classes. "These guys have so little that they protect what they have," Crawford says. "To a certain extent, this program is something they have. It's a connection with the outside world. And they will protect that."

Many of the students are taking multiple classes. In addition to chemistry, Branson is taking algebra and sociology. Next semester, he plans to study ethics, public health, and philosophy. During the day, Branson works in the vocational machine shop. Like all the inmates, he gets up at 4 AM every day and works the required eight hours a day. Lights go out at 10 PM, but many inmates stay up far later than that to study and do homework, Lewen says. She speculates that they use light from their television sets.

Heather Rowley
Study Break Erick Sandoval (left) helps fellow inmate Gilberto Hernandez with a homework assignment.

SCOTT SAYS he does homework two to three hours a night, four nights a week. He does it on his top bunk, on the toilet (because that's the only other place to sit in his cramped cell, he says), or in the tiny prison library. The students have no access to the Internet, but they do have access to newspapers and other reading materials. Scott says he gets together with his classmates during recreation time to study. "I'm finding out that I'm a nerd, and I'm proud of it," he says. "There are a lot of guys here that feel this way."

The inmates aren't the only ones transformed by this experience. Crawford, Rousseas, Fabrikant, and Douglas, say that they, too, have changed.

Image Title Peg Skorpinski
Diploma earned David Cowen, who completed the chemistry course, was among seven inmates who graduated from the college program this past June.

"I had very closed ideas about what prison was and how people should be treated when they're in prison," Rousseas says. "But when I've spent this much time teaching in the prison environment, my entire previous notion of what prison is, who is in prison, and how prisoners should be treated has completely changed."

Douglas concurs. "These guys are some of the most marginalized people in society, and if we can help them have a more positive life when they get out, the few hours a week that we put into this is really worthwhile."

Crawford says the experience has reinforced his passion for teaching. He encourages members of ACS to reach out to the prison community. One way is to visit a local prison and speak to the inmates about your research, he says. Another is to videotape a talk and make it available to the prison.

Members of ACS's Speaker Service might consider including a prison in their tour circuit. And local section officers could organize a Science Café specifically for a prison audience. "Talking about the work that you do and your research area can be the motivation someone needs to take their education seriously," Lewen says.

Crawford is graduating soon and doesn't plan to teach chemistry again at the prison, but he says he'll leave behind notes on his experience for future chemistry instructors. He reports that the students did well on their final exam: four As, seven Bs, five Cs, and one D.

"I think that chemists in general have the desire to make the world a better place," Branson says. "By educating people like me—inmates—you're making the world a better place because it's changing my life."

Branson will be up for parole in 2009; Gallardo, in 2010; and Scott, in 2015.

The Next Best Thing

The inmates in chemistry class at California's San Quentin State Prison didn???t have access to live demonstrations. Instead, volunteer instructor Chip Crawford, a grad student at University of California, Berkeley, taped several experiments done by chemistry instructors at UC Berkeley and showed the video clips in class.

Watch what happens when different alkali metals are added to water, a rubber band is exposed to ozone, permanganate is mixed with hydrogen peroxide, and a quarter of a donut is immersed in liquid oxygen.

Courtesy of Chip Crawford and Lonnie Martin
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