RBGG’s Jane Kahn was one of two honorees at the Prison University Project’s First Annual Benefit, Gather & Give, held at Delancey Street Restaurant in San Francisco on September 22, 2018. Jane was a founding board member of the organization, also known as “PUP”, which provides high quality liberal arts education to people incarcerated at San Quentin Prison. The second honoree of the evening was Nigel Poor, co-producer and co-host of the podcast Ear Hustle.

In her speech honoring Jane, Jody Lewen, Executive Director of PUP, noted that “Jane had a tremendous impact on the Prison University Project in our most formative years; not only on our social and professional networks, and on our development capacity, but also on the legal literacy of the organization: on our collective understanding of system as a whole, and on our ability to navigate that system, as well as the intensely political landscape around corrections.“

Jody went on to say, “After we announced that we’d be honoring Jane, we started to get phone calls (from her friends and colleagues) – telling us things we needed to be sure to mention; even offering to speak here tonight. Everyone had stories: about her incredible dedication, hard work, her intellect; what it was like to work with her – her personal attentiveness, and compassion. People wanted to talk about how she had impacted their work and their lives . . . Through the sheer force of your personality, you have helped so many people inside and outside endure, and whatever their circumstances, and whatever the outcome, you’ve let thousands of people know that they were not alone.”

Marvin Mutch, formerly incarcerated prison reform activist, who introduced Jane noted, “People are alive today because of her persistent and tenacious lawyering and her accomplishments epitomize a rare advocacy born only of a sentient and progressive vision.”

Jane’s remarks in full:

“I am so happy to be here tonight celebrating the incredible work of the Prison University Project, its Executive Director Jody Lewen, and its hard-working and inspirational Board, staff, volunteers and students.   Thank you very much for the unexpected but much appreciated recognition from PUP.  I am so honored to share this with Nigel Poor, the talented co-producer and co-host of Ear Hustle. Jody and Marvin, thank you for your kind introductions.  And a special thank you to my friends and family who came tonight including Mike, Ben, Joey and Katy.  Max and Alison, I feel your support. 

I would like to speak briefly about the importance of PUP in my life.  I am a “prisoner rights” attorney and. I have worked alongside a dedicated team of advocates at the Prison Law Office and at Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld, many of whom I see here tonight. I have spent more than 25 years visiting my clients inside CA’s prisons – in visiting rooms, on the yards, in cell blocks, infirmaries, on suicide watch and in solitary.  We have represented these men and women in lawsuits brought to secure them basic constitutional rights.

I rarely visited a low security prison or yard during that time because the worse places for my clients were the high custody prisons.   Walking through these prison yards I rarely saw incarcerated men or women programming.  They remained locked in their cells or dorms.  Conditions were harsh and my visits were filled with awful scenes of pain and suffering. Prisons were severely and dangerously overcrowded, and CDCR provided little or no rehabilitative activities.  Prison tours became more and more difficult for me as conditions worsened for our clients in the crowded and inhumane conditions—I was becoming hopeless about the possibility of reforming the prison system and bringing meaningful relief to my clients.

San Quentin, however, was the exception to the rule:  in the shadow of its large death row and segregated housing units, it also housed lower custody men and allowed volunteers to bring in programming.  One such program was the Prison University Project. 

I vividly remember my first visit to a PUP classroom in 2007 or 8.  We were actively touring CA prisons with our experts at that time, after filing a Motion to Reduce CA’s Prison Over-crowding.  The night of my visit, a volunteer met me at the front gate and walked me through control to the lower yard.  The sun had set and I was surprised to see so many men on the yard playing ball, walking the track and just talking.  In the prisons I visited it was even rare to see daytime yard, and often it occurred in cages referred to as “dog runs.”  

As we headed to a mobile classroom, I saw other folks headed that way.  The men nodded greetings to each other as we entered the classroom.  The class was a philosophy class and the students were engaged and prepared; the discussion was intelligent.  The class was a mix of the many racial and ethnic groups who live within the walls of San Quentin.  After class several students introduced themselves and we spoke.  They described informal study groups to me that occurred on the yard or on the tier. I left that evening excited by PUP’s program and the changes it was making within the San Quentin community.  I have since gone to PUP college graduations and met graduates at our home who have paroled and speak of the impact that the college program had on their own identity.  Seeing PUP’s work gave me hope at a time when there was little reason to feel hopeful about what we were seeing in CA’s prisons. Thank you PUP for showing me what could be possible inside our prisons.”