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Learning from her ‘life with lifers’

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012 | Posted by

Photo by Christopher Chung / PD


Photo by Christopher Chung / PD

As Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Dr. Elaine Leeder oversees 14 departments, teaches sociology and has inspired many a Sonoma State University student to a career in social sciences.

But through her work behind prison bars, most recently at San Quentin State Prison, she has learned that convicts can lead a good life and pursue a socially beneficial career.

Leeder’s new book, “My Life with Lifers, Lessons For A Teacher: Humanity Has No Bars,” is part autobiography, part manifesto for prison reform. She begins with her own background.

“I have always been drawn to darkness and the dark side of people’s lives,” she writes. “It may be because my father’s family was killed in Lithuania during the Holocaust. It might also be because my mother’s people were immigrants from Poland, with many of the troubles that immigrant families experienced, including poverty and mental illness.”

Leeder, 68, originally trained as a social worker and psychotherapist working with alcoholics, drug addicts, perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse. In 1995, while conducting a summer program for students about to enter college, she toured the Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

“I was struck by the cold, harsh facility and the fact that it was 150 years old,” she said. “When the tour was over, I asked the warden if inmates had any educational opportunities.”

The answer was no. Impetuously, she offered to bring education to the prisoners. The warden’s answer was yes.

Since that day Leeder has devoted her off-campus life to educating “lifers,” prisoners serving indeterminate sentences like “15-to-life” and educating the rest of the world about them.

“My vocation is being a teacher and a dean,” she said in a recent interview. “My avocation is corrections and seeking to understand why people do the terrible things they do.

“Yes, there are psychopaths and people I’ve met whom I would never want to see released. But incarceration is usually the result of life circumstances. It comes down to being poor, uneducated, involved in drugs or gangs, and having no appropriate role models.”

Until 2004, Leeder taught sociology once a week nearly year-round in New York and California. She recruited other professors to lecture on topics from physics and astronomy to anthropology, philosophy, law and literature. She supervised teaching assistants and led wide-eyed undergraduates through the gauntlet of walls, gates, doors to meet their prejudices about convicts face to face.

Due to prison regulations, teaching tools are “old school.” No Powerpoints, no DVDs, no technology of any kind, Leeder writes. “The desks are old and battered, and the whiteboards often do not have markers with which to write.”

Thirty to 35 students cram into each classroom, laundry area or other semi-private space. Under her tutelage they have learned the principles and vocabulary of sociology that allow them to understand themselves, how social class and/or upbringing contributes to criminality. And how education can help them move forward.

Since 2004, Leeder has sponsored New Leaf on Life, a self-help group with whom she meets one Friday a month and which includes men she calls the “pillars” of prison society.

Most have been locked away for 20 to 30 years, having traded anger, blame, hatred and despair for self-assessment, therapy, group work and volunteering to prevent violence. Among their accomplishments are GEDs, associate degrees and leadership in prison religious and service groups.

Their after-prison goals include advancing their education and mending the world through social work.

Few lifers go into prison knowing about law-abiding society, Leeder said.

“Of the 30,000 lifers in California prisons, I would say two-thirds are like my students,” she said, “but they can’t be ‘re-habilitated’ because they never learned right from wrong in the first place.”

First they learn to keep their heads down in fights, to avoid drugs and gang affiliations and to survive by keeping a low profile, getting along with guards and other prisoners.

The successful ex-con awakens to his own humanity and comes to desire atonement and transformation, taking responsibility for his choices, doing prison-community service and planning for service after release.

“They screwed up,” she said. “They know it. They feel guilty and want to make up for it. But simple punishment (retributive justice) doesn’t allow for transformation. Education and restorative justice do.”

Leeder writes, “More often than not, the lifers decide to work with youths, since they themselves first got into trouble as young men. They feel compelled to give back to the society that they wronged.”

Of the inmates she has met who are now out, all are “working with service agencies” and none have reoffended.

“My passion is to educate, to influence public policy, to show that humanity and redemption know no bars,” Leeder said. “Demonizing and dichotomous black-white thinking are not helpful. Prisoners are people, too.”

Meet the prisoners

Elaine Leeder is particularly interested in prisoners who share her Jewish background. In “My Life with Lifers, Lessons For A Teacher,” she describes two of her favorites:

  • Phylo, a Jewish African-American, who received two consecutive life terms with the possibility of parole in 1983 for kidnapping and burglary. After nearly 30 years of study, he likens prisoners to “leaves falling to the ground only to reenter the cycle of life and death. He affirms, “I am now a ‘new leaf’ who is ready to provide clean oxygen for all of life’s creatures.”
  • Yohannan, 55, who came from a family of alcoholics and drug abusers who injected him with LSD as a child. He “disciplined” his girlfriend’s toddler to death when a young man. Now an Orthodox Jew, he was allowed to study more than 3,000 religious texts and celebrated his bar mitzvah. Released in 2010, he lives in a Jewish halfway house where he works to redeem himself and “repair the harm I caused” to humanity and the universe.


  • cece crane

    Humanity is the key word here and it is for everyone.

  • Monique

    Dr. Leeder inspired me to walk in the shoes of others and to understand those who live on the fringes of society. Her passion and dedication to social justice is what lead me to pursue a career in social work. Thank you Elaine for all your inspiring work.

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Nick Walden is our Rohnert Park + Cotati correspondent.
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