San Quentin State Prison

It would be our first class since lockdown ended. Nothing official, but rumors connected this lockdown to the death of an inmate who had hanged himself. I glanced at my syllabus and noted the irony in my planned discussion of George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging.” For over a week my English 101 students had been confined to their cells, and I anticipated that they’d feel uneasily free—eager, agitated—in returning to class.

For many of them the college program at San Quentin was a relief from daily drudgery; they regretted missing class whenever disruptions prevented them from attending. Our basement classroom, with mildewed walls, peeling paint, and windows covered with steel mesh, faced an open row of lidless toilets. It seemed an unlikely location for the study of literature, but the connection offered by reading transcends place and condition. That’s why I was there.

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