The Prison University Project is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization which supports the College Program at San Quentin State Prison, an associate's degree program which is the only on-site college program in any prison in the U.S. state of California, except for Ironwood State Prison. Courses are taught by volunteers, most of them graduate students, instructors, and faculty members from San Francisco Bay Area colleges and universities. Degrees are awarded by Patten University.
The Prison University Project also provides guidance to student inmates, as well as disseminating information on prison education to the public at large. From November 2007 to January 2008 it organized an exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library, including photographs by Heather Rowley of everyday scenes at San Quentin and essays by students in the College Program about their experiences; a similar exhibition on Alcatraz Island ran from June 1 to October 22, 2008.
The Prison University Project has its origins in the aftermath of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which made it illegal for prisoners to receive Pell Grants, reducing the number of college degree-granting programs in United States prisons from its peak of over 350 to fewer than 10. The College Program at San Quentin was founded in fall of 1996, based entirely on volunteer teaching and organization. As the College Program expanded and efforts to raise funds increased, the Prison University Project was founded in 2003 "to provide material, administrative, and financial support to the College Program at San Quentin."
About 300 student inmates are enrolled in the College Program at San Quentin each semester. A High School diploma or its equivalent is required to participate, but most students nevertheless begin with the College Program's non-credit preparatory courses in Mathematics and English. Associate's degree course offerings have included Calculus, Biology, Environmental Science, Chemistry, English, and Composition. 19 courses are offered per semester. Most courses are worth 3 credits, with 60 being required for graduation. As of October 2007, 68 inmates had completed their degrees at San Quentin.
The College Program has been cited by both instructors and student inmates, as well as corrections officers, as exerting a positive influence on the lives of participants and improving their chances of contributing productively to society upon their release. Prison officials and inmates believe that the program helps make the environment inside San Quentin safer, and inmates and their families say that the program has inspired inmates' children to better educate themselves and help break the cycle of intergenerational crime and incarceration.