Georgetown University is launching a liberal arts degree program for inmates this fall in Maryland’s state prison system, officials announced Wednesday. The degree program expands the university’s Prison Scholars Program, which both credit and noncredit courses to more than 150 incarcerated students at the D.C. Jail since 2018. The administrators of the program hope that with the ability to leave prison with a bachelor’s degree that the inmates will have better outcomes after release. Indeed, such programs have been proven to reduce recidivism and open up opportunities for the previously incarcerated.
“This is part of a vision we’ve been pursuing for a while,” said Marc Howard, a Georgetown professor and director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, which oversees the university’s prison programs. “I’ve come to discover such extraordinary students with intelligence, dedication, commitment and, really, a pure love of learning that has always inspired me.” Howard began teaching at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution in 2014, with a class on World History.
About the first group of students, Howard said, “They were doing the same readings, having the same high-level conversations as Georgetown students.” The new program is modeled after offerings at the university. In the program, students will take liberal arts classes and can focus on one of several majors, including cultural humanities, interdisciplinary social sciences, or global intellectual history. The program is designed to be completed over a period of five years, though some students will enter with existing credits and graduate early, Howard says.
This program will be offered to a selection of students that meet specific criteria at the Patuxent Instution in Jessup, Md, but inmates from across the state can apply. If accepted they will be transferred to the Patuxent facility. To cover the cost of tuition, Georgetown can offer federal financial aid through a government initiative — started by President Barack Obama and expanded under President Donald Trump — that allows inmates to use federal Pell grants for low-income students to pursue an education. Further support for the program comes from a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and support from Georgetown graduate Damien Dwin, officials said.
As mentioned before on this site, there is a growing body of research that suggests prisons become much safer places when incarcerated people have access to education. Plus, this has a ripple effect into our communities. Those who participate in prison education programs have a better chance of securing jobs upon release and are 43 percent less likely to reoffend, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice research and policy organization. This means more productive citizens and safer places to live for all of us.
Robert Green, Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services put this nicely, when he said “education, it can really be a great equalizer in breaking the cycle of poverty, breaking cycles of families where, perhaps, education and the chance the attend a university never occurred.” Howard also said education can counteract some of the stigma formerly incarcerated people face upon release, particularly when they look for employment.
Of course, there are also less tangible benefits according to Erin Shaffer, director of Patuxent Institution. “While higher education certainly affords the opportunity to acquire book knowledge,” Shaffer said, “what can be just as significant is that the process of pursuing a college degree is challenging and it creates an immense amount of self-discipline.” In otherwords, the process of completing a degree program creates better people.
And there are plenty of formerly incarcerated people that can attest to that fact. For example, Tyrone Walker, an associate at the Justice Policy Institute criminal justice nonprofit organization, said prison education gave him a second chance. He was incarcerated for more than 24 years for a murder in the District when he was 17 years old. He credits his success — and his freedom — to education. “I was taking every class available,” said Walker, now 46 years old. His course work ranged widely. He took everything from legal research to African History, even computer courses.
Before incarceration, he lacked even a GED. During the final leg of his sentence, Walker took noncredit classes that were offered by Georgetown at the D.C. Jail. But he was able to get his diploma and take college courses. For Walker, going to the university, he said, was a dream. Afterall, his initial sentence of 127 years meant that he would die in prison. Lucky for him, his sentence was reduced in 2018 after the D.C. Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Act in 2016. The measure came in response to research that showed that impulse control and decision-making skills are still developing in young people. The change in law allowed Walker to petition a judge for a shorter sentence, which was ultimately granted.
Georgetown has joined several other schools in educating incarcerated students, including the University of Baltimore and Bowie State University. These programs complement vocational opportunities offered at the prison designed to train inmates for careers in areas such as construction and food service. “That’s a really strong focus for us,” Green said about preparing inmates for their lives after prison. Fortunately, Green has an understanding and progressive approach to how he runs the corrections department. In so many states, no such emphasis is given to education. They seem much more focused on punishment than rehabilitation.