Jesse Reed studied nights and weekends to get his associate arts degree, squeezing in extra hours with the lamp turned low to avoid disturbing his roommate. Or cellmate, more exactly.
His alma mater was San Quentin Prison. And the associate degree is as far as he can go behind bars.
Nearly all federal funding for college education in prisons across the country was dropped in the mid-'90s by politicians scandalized at the idea of giving criminals a free ride. Reed managed to get his degree only because the college-behind-bars program was sustained by volunteers.
Proponents argue that such programs pay off by producing inmates who are more likely to stay out of prison after their release, but the programs remain highly unpopular with many.
"It's really unfortunate that society feels that way," said Reed, 42. "You have a lot of men in here who made mistakes in life partly because they didn't feel that they could compete in society. We turned to a life of crime."
Reed, who is serving 25 years to life for murder, was among the first students to sign up when San Quentin's college classes started in 1988, with teachers and textbooks provided by Patten College of Oakland.
At that time, Pell grants, federal financial aid given to low-income college students, were available to prisoners, and the program eventually encompassed 13 prisons in California.
Before the program was killed, about 28,000 prisoners received $36 million in Pell grants each year, less than 1 percent of the total of about $6 billion.
After prisoners were banned from the Pell program by Congress in 1994, almost all the programs shut down.
Federal funds are still available for college courses for inmates under 25 with five years or less to serve, but an effort to raise the age limit to 35 this year went nowhere in Congress. The state of California supports programs to teach inmates vocational skills and get their high school diplomas, but will not pay for college.
"People feel, 'Why should somebody who commits a crime get a free ride to college?' That's the position of the state and the legislature and probably most of the people of California," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
At Crime Victims United of California, Harriet Salarno said her group supports vocational and high-school-level instruction. But free college just isn't right, she said: "Why aren't we taking care of the victim's children first?"
Supporters of college in prison point to studies such as one by researchers at the City University of New York that found that 8 percent of women who took college courses in New York prisons were back behind bars within three years of their release. Those who did not take classes had a 30 percent reincarceration rate.
"Why should we do this? Public safety," said Stephen Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association. "Education does change minds, teaches people how to think better, how to find alternatives to the way they used to do things."
About 25 states have some sort of postsecondary education in prison, said Richard Tewksbury, a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville. "The number of programs is starting to bounce back."
In the Texas prison system, which has its own school district, 9,500 offenders attended postsecondary classes last year. The program is funded by a variety of scholarships and the federal money available for young inmates. Inmates also contribute, either by paying up front or promising to pay when they get out.
In California, after money for the San Quentin program dried up, the program was sustained by professors who volunteered their time, publishers who donated imperfect textbooks and donors who sent cash.
Today, about 200 inmates attend college classes at the state prison's Robert E. Burton Adult School.
Death row inmates also can take some classes, though they are not allowed out of their cells. A teacher delivers instructions through the bars.
Officials sometimes receive complaints from people who do not believe death row prisoners deserve or need education. But correction officials say prison education not only produces inmates less likely to return to prison on their release, it also produces prisoners who are better behaved while they are behind bars.
Death row inmates get their degrees by mail. But other inmates get their own commencement in the prison chapel.
Among the Class of 2002 was Reed, who during the graduation ceremony took the stage as part of an all-convict quartet. "I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky," he sang.
It was a typical graduation. Speeches were made. Mothers in the audience teared up. Classmates cheered popular students. At the end of the ceremony, graduates flung their mortarboards in the air.
Then, guards led relatives out the prison gates and graduates removed their graduation gowns and changed back into their prison blues.