For Jeff Magnin ’74, who spent nearly two decades as an English professor, teaching was more than just a profession—it was a way for him to use his talents on behalf of others. And last year, he increased this commitment to education and service, becoming a volunteer instructor at Mount Tamalpais College, a small liberal arts college housed within San Quentin Prison on the north shore of San Francisco Bay.
The only degree-granting college located inside a U.S. prison, Mount Tamalpais offers its students the opportunity to use their time in incarceration to earn an associate’s degree. Former offenders paroled with an associate’s degree are far less likely to return to prison. Yet while Magnin estimates that only 200 of the nearly 3,200 members of the prison population are enrolled in the college, he is glad to help equip these students with the tools for future success.
“As a society, we always talk about second chances and third chances, but a lot of these students haven’t ever had first chances,” he says. “They had poor educations. They came from unbelievably difficult circumstances. So I feel that this is one way that I can give back.”
Passionate about literature from a young age, Magnin received an MFA in dramatic criticism from Yale before heading to Los Angeles to evaluate scripts for Hollywood production companies. But the work was far from fulfilling. “I would read something on the order of 400 screenplays a year, and of those 400, I could probably expect to find three or four that were promising. It really was a slog,” he explains. So he decided to return to academia, this time as an educator, a role which he says was more consistent with the values instilled in him by both his parents and his time at Taft.
Magnin went on to teach throughout California—including stints at California State University in Northridge, University of Southern California, and UC Berkeley—before landing at the University of California, Davis, where he taught courses on nonfiction writing, 20th-century dramatic literature, and documentary film. This work kept him busy for the next 15 years, over which time he developed an increasing interest in volunteering at Mount Tamalpais. Only with his retirement in September 2021 could he finally apply for the program.
Now Magnin teaches a dozen students ranging in age from mid-20s to early 70s each semester, leading them through the fundamentals of composition and acclimating them to proper academic conventions, such as incorporating outside research into their work and properly citing sources. Much of the class centers on two assignments, each around 1,000 words, and Magnin purposefully chooses prompts that speak to his students’ experiences—for instance, potential improvements to the prison and parole systems.
“These inmates go for years without having someone ask them what they think. They might have been turned away by people or told things about themselves that were denigrating or untrue,” he says, “but by improving their writing, they can begin to express themselves, which will hopefully give them a sense of empowerment.”
Very quickly, Magnin perceived noticeable differences between his students at Mount Tamalpais and those in the university system. “College students these days are so concerned about their GPAs that they sometimes have a real difficult time in class, they freeze up,” he says. “But for my students at San Quentin, it’s all so new and liberating—they just take off! They take part actively in discussions, and the classes are very lively and very interesting.”
But while the students may be different, Magnin says that his teaching hasn’t changed. “I always have the same goals when I put my classes together. I want my students to gain confidence in themselves as writers and to be more equipped to write under diverse circumstances outside of class,” he says. “And that’s even more important for the men at Mount Tamalpais. Even after they’re paroled, they’re not entirely free. They face challenges getting work or finding a place to live. So to be able to teach them skills that are transferrable—that can really help them make their way in the world once they’re released—makes this work especially meaningful.”