Brian Lenardo pulls into the parking lot at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. Heading inside, all he has with him are course materials, a plastic water bottle, and his car keys. He doesn’t wear white, green, or blue; the colors worn in prison are off limits for instructors. After he clears security, he is escorted to an empty classroom. A few minutes later, a couple dozen incarcerated students file in. Class begins.

“I love teaching in prison,” says Lenardo, a postdoc in nuclear physics at Stanford University who volunteers through the Prison University Project. “The students are more motivated and engaged than any other undergraduates I’ve taught. They don’t try to boost their grades. They are not shy about asking for help. They show up prepared. They are there to learn.”

The US is home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the incarcerated population,...

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