The San Francisco Public Library Hosts Who We Are: Essays and Photographs of Students at San Quentin State Prison

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The independent, non-profit Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison stands as the only on-site, degree-granting, higher education program in California’s prison system. With only three full-time staff members, the program relies heavily on approximately sixty volunteers to run its college preparatory and Associates degree programs for San Quentin inmates. Most of the instructors are either graduate students or faculty members from the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, and other local colleges and universities.

The program has had a powerful effect on the lives of the inmates involved. States one student enrolled in the program, “The program has had an enormous impact on how my family [views] me as a person. They learned that even in prison I have not let my mistake define who I am.”

This past year, the Prison University Project organized Who We Are, which opened on November 10 and continues through January 20. The exhibit has two components, one being the photographs by Heather Rowley showing scenes from everyday life at San Quentin, including students preparing for class, participating in poetry slams, and earning their Associate’s degree. The other component of the exhibition is a group of essays written by inmates participating in the Prison University Project. The essays reflect the backgrounds, life-defining moments, and personal experiences of the inmates, exploring, among others, the topics of faith, love, loss, child rearing and becoming an artist.

In conjunction with the opening of this exhibition, the Prison University Project presented a panel discussion on the impact of incarceration on individuals and the role of the arts in personal transformation. Panel member Vernell Crittendon, a former San Quentin public information officer, reflecting on the transformative power of artistic expression stated, “I believe that when we engage these men into giving something back to the community without having them gain anything other than volunteering, I found that that was something that put them on a path to transformation.” Joe Loya, published writer and former prison inmate himself, commented specifically on the important role of writing in the process of recovery and self discovery, stating, “To achieve as much as we can with our lives…we need to own our story.”


After its stay at the library, the exhibition will travel to gallery spaces throughout California, and will eventually find its permanent home at San Quentin State Prison, where the photographs and essays may be viewed in the education building and prison library.

The exhibition is made possible, in part, by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities as part of the Council’s statewide California Stories initiative and is also supported by Friends of the Library.

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