“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 started teaching non-credit-bearing classes at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution in 2014. The first offering was a class that covered fascism and extremist movements, called “World History,” he said.
“They were doing the same readings, having the same high-level conversations as Georgetown students,” Howard said about that first cohort. The new degree program also will be modeled after offerings at the university.
Students will take liberal arts classes and can tailor their degree tracks to major in cultural humanities, interdisciplinary social science or global intellectual history, Howard said. The degree is designed to be completed in five years, but Howard expects some students will enter the program with existing credits and finish early.
The degree will be offered to an initial cohort of 25 students at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md. Inmates from across the state can apply, and those who are accepted 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.
There is a growing body of research that suggests prisons become safer when incarcerated people have access to education. 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.
“They create safety, it creates engagement,” said Robert Green, Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services. “When you start looking at 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 said education can counteract some of the stigma formerly incarcerated people face upon release, particularly when they look for employment.
And, there are less tangible benefits, said 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.”
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. His coursework ran the gamut, from legal research to African history to Adobe and Excel. He earned his GED and a business certificate while incarcerated.
During the final leg of his sentence, Walker took noncredit classes that were offered by Georgetown at the D.C. Jail.
Walker said he had gone to the Georgetown neighborhood for shopping when he was younger. Going to the university, he said, was a dream.
Although grateful for the education he received behind bars, Walker criticized the system that held him there for more than half his life. Walker’s initial sentence — 127 years — meant he would die in prison.
He was granted early release 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, and allowed Walker to petition a judge for a shorter sentence, he said.
“We know that their brains are not fully developed,” Walker said about young offenders. “And we know these offenses can’t go without some type of accountability. But they need to be age-appropriate.”
Georgetown has joined several other schools in educating incarcerated students, including the University of Baltimore and Bowie State University. The programs complement the vocational opportunities offered at the prison that train inmates in fields such as construction and food service, Green said.
“That’s a really strong focus for us,” Green said about preparing inmates for their lives after prison. “If individuals are going home, it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re prepared to engage with the communities that they’re going to."