The Georgetown University Prison Scholars program gathered in the D.C. Central Detention Facility for their first in-person classes since 2020.
The program has been virtual since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, scholars, teachers and student volunteers alike have returned to the D.C. Jail library for in-person courses. Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) founded the Prison Scholars Program in January 2018, and the program offers a series of liberal arts classes for incarcerated individuals.
One of the first classes to convene in-person was the “Prisons and Punishment” course, according to Marc Howard, government professor and director of PJI, which meets weekly and was previously taught during the 2019-20 academic year. Other credit-bearing courses being taught this semester include Personal Finance and a writing seminar focused on literature of the apartheid in South Africa.
Scholars are required to be fully vaccinated and abide by masking requirements, and the students are completing a smooth transition back to in-person learning, according to Marc Howard, government professor and director of PJI.
“The Scholars are so excited to be interacting and engaging again,” Howard wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Although for the previous 18 months we had been able to continue offering courses through prison-issued tablets, the interface was quite limited and the tablets don’t have cameras, so being in person again makes a huge difference.”
Howard says that every week the “Prisons and Punishment” course meets at the D.C. Jail library, where a group of students in the Capitol Applied Learning Labs (CALL) program, Georgetown’s experiential learning center at the Capitol Campus, come inside the library to mix with a group of incarcerated students.
“Incarcerated people have suffered so much throughout the pandemic, and our Scholars are overjoyed to be returning to a more healthy and engaging living and learning environment within the DC Jail,” Howard wrote.
During the summer, the virtual courses consisted of uploaded lectures, course materials and assignments from Georgetown faculty. However, student-instructor interactions were limited by the virtual format, according to Joshua Miller, PJI Director of Education.
“Our return was much anticipated and it was truly joyful to be reunited with my students! Some of them were admitted during the pandemic, so this was the first time I’d seen them at all, while they watched videos of me and other faculty,” Miller wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The PJI also offers a variety of other course programs, including the Pivot Program, a non-credit bearing certificate in business and entrepreneurship for formerly incarcerated individuals. The PJI also organizes the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA) and Georgetown Paralegal Program, which trains experienced previously incarcerated individuals for successful careers in the legal field.
Though some PJI programs were revised and reduced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative still offered many programs that operated in a virtual format over the past year. The PJI was also able to grow its team following a $1 million grant for the program from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation.
Over the summer, students residing in the D.C. Jail engaged with an entirely asynchronous 12-week-long Justice and Peace Studies course monitored by prison authorities, according to Tarek Maassarani, adjunct lecturer at the Georgetown University Law Center and for the Justice and Peace Studies program.
“These were extremely challenging instructional conditions, compounded by a pandemic and lock-downs,” Maassarani wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Nevertheless, most students overcame the 6 or more hours a week reading articles and watching recordings on tablets they could access only at certain times.”
As they return to in-person operations, the Prison Scholars Program will also welcome the first cohort of students to a five-year Bachelor of Liberal Arts Program in Jan. 2022 at the Patuxent Institution, a correctional facility, in Jessup, MD.
Returning to in-person instruction increases personal connections for students and instructors alike, according to Maassarani.
“They will be able to hear each other’s perspectives, work in teams, and engage their instructors in real time — things we often take for granted on main campus,” Maassarani Wrote.