A Second Chance for Inmates in San Quentin

By Sara Rinaldi, Office of Development of Communications Posted Thu, 06/04/2020 - 10:25

Diane Kahn MA ’98, Women in Leadership & Philanthropy board member and School of Education Dean’s Circle member, is deeply committed to education. For the past three years, she has been leading the Academic Peer Education Program (APEP) at San Quentin State Prison. 

Kahn is part of a team of community leaders who lead peer-driven classes that provide quality teacher education to prepare inmates for their General Education Development (GED). APEP pairs inmates at San Quentin with outside volunteers who help teach classes two nights a week to more than 36 incarcerated students.   

During the past few years, Kahn sees a common narrative amongst the students of APEP. Most often, their education had a ‘breaking year’, commonly around fourth grade, school began to feel like a challenge, or alternatively, school simply was not a priority. For many student inmates, there were few examples of someone in their life who worked or attended school. Typically, San Quentin inmates come from low-income backgrounds.

“Most low-income students don’t want to be seen as different, and they don’t want to be seen as poor — a lot of these kids end up doing something illegal,” says Kahn. This is a concept referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline and was the trajectory that many inmates lives are on. 

Education as Life Vocation

Kahn has been committed to her passion for education from an early age. “I knew when I was really young — I remember volunteering in a first-grade classroom during undergrad and seeing how service affected the kids. I love huge challenges, even when I was teaching.” After completing her undergraduate degree, Kahn was accepted into USF’s School of Education (SOE) and pursued her Master’s in Private School Administration. Now she leads APEP, an opportunity that challenges and engages both her heart and mind. 


Diane KhanAs a service-oriented individual, Kahn continues to be a champion for the University of San Francisco. Shabnam Koirala-Azad, Dean of USF’s School of Education, reflects,
"I am so grateful to past and current stewards of the School of Education, who support us in our work and understand our commitment to advancing justice through education. Diane Kahn is not only an alumnus of the school but has served on the SOE Dean's Circle and has even collaborated with our faculty on a project to provide educational support to incarcerated adults at San Quentin. This type of holistic involvement in the life of SOE has positively shifted how we think of stewardship and advancement in the context of higher education." Serving as a School of Education Dean’s Circle member, Kahn appreciates having a voice on campus and making an impact in education within the walls of USF’s classrooms and the walls of San Quentin.   

Prison as a Place for Personal Reform 

According to Kahn, “San Quentin is the creme de la creme of prisons in California.” With over 60 different programs, inmates have a diverse array of opportunities for self-development. San Quentin is a Level 1 and Level 2 security prison (low to medium) where there are more opportunities for inmates to walk around, experience autonomy, and socialize.

The team of community leaders who drive the work of APEP recently reached a major accomplishment. APEP in San Quentin has been approved for Rehabilitative Achievement Credits. When an inmate participates in a program of self-development like APEP, they can receive credits that can earn them up to six months off their parole date. Kahn helped drive the Rehabilitative Achievement Credit approval process through the warden and the state of California. 

The rewarding work of APEP moves Kahn to continue on in her service. Kahn knows that education can unlock someone’s world, and “at San Quentin, you can open the world, so the walls of prison don’t exist anymore.” The men involved in APEP have spent their time inside working on ways to better themselves and share the common goal of giving back to the community in the future. She recalls the ripple effect of a grown man holding a piece of paper that was once seen as unattainable, with the letters ‘GED’ and seeing their prison community and outside family and friends filled with so much pride. 

“I feel like I’m having a much greater impact on the good of society,” says Kahn.“I get much more out of teaching inside San Quentin than I do out here.”

People of San Quentin: A Passion Project Comes True

This April, Kahn’s dream project was approved by the state of California after a one year review. Her vision is to create a photoblog similar to Humans of New York, where she can share the voice of the currently incarcerated with the outside world. The goal is to demystify what people think about prison, as well as give a voice to inmates by showing their daily life inside San Quentin and hopefully other prisons. 

Kahn reflects, “Inmates often feel as though they have been forgotten.” By sharing their stories from inside the walls, inmates will have the opportunity to tell their own stories and the reader will be given a view of life inside prison.

Kahn has put her heart into educating the student-inmate community at San Quentin and her passion has created another platform to better the lives of many. Giving back to her community through education is important to Kahn as she received a scholarship to complete her master’s degree in Education at USF. Through both APEP and the School of Education Dean’s Circle, Kahn embodies the Jesuit mission, working in service of others, and opening doors to education. She knows that “once you’ve found your passion, you’re not working.”

To learn more about the School of Education, contact Tina Burgelman, Director of Development.