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Experiences Caused Widestrom To Make A Career U-Turn

Published: October 17, 2011

Normally, individuals look for ways to get out of prison. Amy Widestrom wanted to get in.

An assistant professor of political science at CSULB since 2009, her educational journey had her earning degrees in theater and English and Oberlin College in Ohio. Soon thereafter, however, she had a change of heart.

“After college I was looking for jobs in publishing houses and that sort of thing in San Francisco and nothing was really panning out,” recalled Widestrom, trying at the time to utilize her newly obtained college degrees, “so I fell into a political fundraising job, which is how I got interested in politics.”

While living in Berkeley, she looked for volunteer opportunities, with a particular interest of wanting to teach in the prison system.

“I was thinking about what I really cared about and I had been reading about how recidivism is so dramatically affected by educational opportunities inside jails and prisons,” said Widestrom. “I thought it would be really interesting to teach in a prison.” Widestrom did her research and found a nonprofit that ran educational programming in San Quentin.

Opened in July 1852, San Quentin is a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison for men in an unincorporated area of Marin County and is the oldest prison in the state.

“The program at San Quentin has a fundraising arm and so they are able to support it through external fundraising and they are also an extension site of Patten University in Oakland, so it’s an accredited program,” said Widestrom, noting that governmental funding for such prison programs has been severely reduced. “If you get an A.A. degree in this program, it’s an accredited degree. It’s fantastic.”

In 2001, Widestrom began volunteering at San Quentin, but since it is an accredited program and she only had a B.A. degree at the time, she was only allowed to be a teaching assistant.

“I T.A.’d for English courses so I taught contemporary American fiction. We read The Sound and the Fury, which was very difficult for them,” she said of the inmates, “but we also read The Invisible Man, which they really identified with.” She also T.A.’d for an Introduction to Shakespeare course and found that the students really responded to the reading, in part because it was the first time they had felt empowered to do this type of work.

Widestrom said working at San Quentin was like any other T.A. job where she helped students write papers and led discussion sections. “It was like anything else you might do in a classroom,” she added. “You just happen to be doing it in San Quentin.”

Educational programs in prison, of course, come with their own set of restrictions. In San Quentin, for example, all assignments had to be hand-written by pen or pencil on paper rather than on a computer or typewriter to minimize any chance of stored data being passed amongst prisoners. And, the paper could not be in a spiral-bound notebook because the metal could be used as a weapon.

“And I could wear only certain things—baggy clothes, no blue,” said Widestrom. “I got in trouble once because I turned around and had my back to the class, which was not appropriate, so things like that added a weird element to teaching.”

So why would inmates even want to take classes, especially if they are serving a long-term or even life sentence?

“I asked somebody who was in for life, ‘Why are you in this class? Why do you want an A.A. degree?’ and he said to me, ‘Are you kidding; otherwise I’d be sitting around in my jail cell all day.’ They had to do well to continue in the program, so they were motivated, but it’s certainly a different kind of motivation than our students have here. And, for those who are in for shorter periods of time, their A.A. can be real asset as they re-enter society.”

During her time volunteering at San Quentin, Widestrom was also employed at Mercy Housing, where she worked with low-income populations.

Working closely with those two distinct populations, in great part, helped convince her to do the equivalent of a career U-turn.

Experiences Caused Widestrom To Make A Career U-Turn
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Amy Widestrom

“At that point I knew I didn’t want to go back to graduate school for English or literature,” said Widestrom. “I wanted to figure out what was going on with the policies around these populations. I started to take an interest in the politics of urban space and people, and I was also interested in incarceration policies and the population we’re locking up and basically ignoring until they get out, and then we get mad when they wind up going back to jail.”

When looking for a graduate school, she applied to nine public policy programs and three Ph.D. programs, eventually selecting the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

“I liked the interdisciplinary nature of the school; the program was small; there were nine Ph.D. students in my cohort and it was all women which is really unusual for political science,” said Widestrom. “The Maxwell School houses all these different programs—geography and economics and public administration—all in one building and we’re really encouraged to talk with other people and I really liked that.”

But, she didn’t like the sometimes harsh winter weather.

“The first winter I was there we had 190 inches of snow,” said Widestrom, an Oregon native. “I’ve lived in Oberlin and I’ve dealt with lake effect snow and I told myself ‘I can do this,’ but I had never seen anything like it. I came out of my house one time and my roommate, who had an SUV, was standing on the hood in her snow boots shoveling snow off the roof of her car because you can’t drive around with snow on the roof. And I was thinking, ‘Where am I living?’”

Widestrom did survive the winters and, after completing her course work, exams and defending her dissertation proposal, she moved to Washington D.C., where she worked at the National Archives for two years, at the Brookings Institution for a year as a research fellow, and for the Senate Committee for Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs as an American Political Science Congressional Fellow.

Widestrom said of her time at Brookings, “It was fantastic because it’s like being at a very small university so I had office space and I was surrounded by all these scholars that I had read about. It’s an incredible place to work. The next year I worked on Capitol Hill and that was pretty intense. It’s a great place to be if you are studying politics.”

Now settling in to her third year at CSULB, Widestrom teaches Introduction to American Government, Congress and Legislative Process, and senior and graduate seminars in American politics.

And, she has again found her way back into the jail system, this time with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which is trying to move to a system of education-based incarceration.

“The idea is that every person that enters jail is exposed to some educational experience. To this point that has definitely not been the case,” said Widestrom, who serves on the steering committee planning the implementation of this new system, spending part of her time talking with inmates about the types of programs they would like to see. “And then the steering committee is also trying to develop a needs assessment tool so we can understand what a person needs when they first come in and then how to place them in programs more quickly. We’re helping to sort out all these issues and, hopefully, making it a better, more comprehensive educational program.”