To Educate or Not to Educate? That Shouldn’t Be the Question.

When was the last time you enjoyed Shakespeare’s iconic iambic pentameter come to life on stage? Perhaps you caught one of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival performances this summer. Maybe you took a quick jaunt across the pond and found yourself sitting at the center of it all in London’s Globe Theatre. The last time I saw Shakespeare? I was in San Francisco County Jail #5.

When I started In Lieu Of, my chief objective was to galvanize public interest in nonprofits. I didn’t want to just drive interest towards causes, I wanted to highlight the nonprofits underpinning the causes. To that end, I was looking for hooks, twists on ideas that were eye catching. When I stumbled across Jill Tucker’s excellent article on a newly retrofitted Muni bus taking a state of the art education to the San Francisco streets, I nearly fell out of my seat. It was perfect!

I reached out to the nonprofit responsible for the project, Five Keys Schools and Programs, and spoke with Steve Good, Five Keys’ Executive Director. We spoke briefly on the phone and I quickly learned that Five Keys offers much more than just a “hook” to grab people’s interest. Founded by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, Five Keys offers academic and professional advancement for thousands of incarcerated and disenfranchised students each year. In fact, they teach around 3,000 students per day. The retrofitted school bus barely scratches the surface of Five Keys’ impact. At the tail end of our call, Steve was kind enough to invite me on a tour of San Francisco County Jail #5 in San Bruno, the backdrop of my latest Shakespearean experience.

On the outside, SF County Jail #5 resembles a stereotypical jail. The one public entrance is manned by a burly armed security guard and a thick wall surrounds the premises. Standard jail stuff. Inside is where things threw me off balance. Life at Jail #5 centers around one of Five Keys’ fully accredited charter schools. Inmates attend class 2 days per week for 5 hours, selecting from a wide range of courses to advance their academic careers. Most of the inmates I saw were working towards their high school diplomas, but the school is a fully functioning K-12, with several inmates even earning college credits that easily transfer to the Cal State system.

During my brief tour, I had the chance to observe ESL, economics, coding, algebra, art and theater classes. I didn’t even stop in every room. The school was a fully-fledged operation. I’m not 100% sure what I expected to see in Jail #5, but I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t expect to see a spitting image of the typical school experience. There were a few more tattoos (okay, a lot more), everyone was wearing bright orange, and the students were a bit older, but other than the superficial differences, it could have been any school in the country. Students were asked to read from English textbooks aloud to the class. They were called up to the front of the room to explain the “economic pie” and government regulation. If a student didn’t know the answer, other students were invited to help out. Some students shouted answers without being called on, while others stayed silent. Some gravitated towards the role of class clown, while others stepped into the role of teacher’s pet. This was high school all over again!

The most memorable ten minutes were in the smallest classroom on the tour. Under the direction of their drama teacher, half a dozen inmates brought Shakespeare’s Hamlet to life. While an understudy read directly from the script, the rest had memorized their lines. If you’d ever like your ill and preconceived notions of inmates to be obliterated, I’d suggest watching someone decked out in orange flawlessly deliver Hamlet’s monologue and slam down a chair for dramatic effect. That image will stick with you.

So why is all this such a big deal? Because Jail #5 is a living, breathing example of what every jail could (and probably should) look like. Five Keys is guided by the principle of restorative justice, a model that favors rehabilitation of offenders over punishment without change. In the school hall, there are 20 different gangs represented at any one time. Former and current gang members are successfully sharing a space and putting their past behind them. With the help of Five Keys Charter Schools, they are opening the door to new professional and economic opportunities that had been previously closed to them, often due to circumstance out of their control. Opening those doors is one of the keys to lowering recidivism rates.

California’s overall recidivism rate is 68%, compared to only 28% for Five Keys students. That doesn’t just benefit the incarcerated population, that benefits the taxpayer. Recidivism costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year. So...to educate or not to educate? That shouldn’t even be a question.


This week, In Lieu Of is proud to support the incredible work of Five Keys Schools and Programs. To learn more about Five Keys and the incredible work they are doing all over California, visit their website here.


In lieu of buying ridiculously expensive coffee, join the ILO Club and donate $5 per week to a new nonprofit making the world a better place. It’s good karma on autopilot. To join the club, click here.