Locked Up With Green Chemistry

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Inmates at San Quentin State Prison, outside of San Francisco, are some of the few in the country with access to higher education learning. Thanks to the Prison University Program, which relies on financial support from donors and volunteer teachers, prisoners can take classes in a range of classes, including Environmental Science, Biology, Calculus and, recently, Chemistry. The cover story for October 22′s Chemical & Engineering News is all about the chemistry class being taught this year, and some of the inmates who are taking it. Several of the inmates taking the chemistry class show particular interest in environmental issues:

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.

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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.”

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It is maddening to know that, even though prisoners with access to education are less likely to return to prison once they are released, there are less than TEN prisons in the US with higher education programs:

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.

Also maddening is this kind of ignorance:

“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.

Especially when inmates are just as likely as the rest of us to realize how interesting and practical chemistry can be, once they get into it. Take Scott, for example:

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.”

For some more crazy stats on the US prison system, check out this interactive prison report from Mother Jones.

[C&EN]

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