Georgetown University launched a new program that will allow eligible incarcerated persons in the Maryland state prison system to earn a bachelor’s degree.
The program, led by the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, is an expansion of the Prison Scholars Program, which was started in 2018 to provide non-degree classes at the D.C. Jail through a variety of credit and non-credit bearing courses. The program’s expansion will give incarcerated persons at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution, located in Jessup, Maryland, the opportunity to take Georgetown courses and earn a bachelor’s degree. The program will welcome the first cohort of 25 students in the 2021-2022 academic year.
The new initiative fits within PJI’s broader goal to provide comprehensive educational opportunities to the local incarcerated members of the Washington D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, according to PJI Director Marc Howard.
“For us, it’s a milestone we have been striving to achieve that we always hoped we would reach,” Howard said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “We are thrilled all the pieces came together between Georgetown and the state of Maryland. I could not be happier.”
The university and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services signed a memorandum of understanding March 17.
The degree will closely model the Georgetown College curriculum, which consists of 120 credits across a variety of core subjects. Students in the program will have a choice of three majors: cultural humanities, global intellectual history and interdisciplinary social science, according to PJI Director of Education Joshua Miller.
“This curriculum is amazing. It is hard to take all the things you can do on Georgetown’s main campus and take it into a prison,” Miller said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “We are doing everything in our power to take the education you are receiving on the Hilltop and bring it to Patuxent. And I think we’re going to succeed.”
Students will also have access to other university resources, including research assistance and reentry support, which will help students successfully rejoin society after they are released from prison, according to Howard.
“What we are hoping to show is that education and intelligence are two separate things. Some of my smartest students are people who earlier in life have had completely different paths but have now found themselves in a world of education,” Howard said. “We’ve already shown with the Pivot Program and the Paralegal Program we have the country’s leading university reentry programs. We hope to establish ourselves as the only university in the world that has full-scale education and reentry programs and support.”
The PJI’s Maryland degree program’s expansion is funded by a $1 million three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In addition, Georgetown will offer financial aid to qualified students through the Pell grant government initiative, which are funds distributed by the federal government to low-income students to fund their pursuit of higher education, according to The Washington Post.
The Prisons and Justice Initiative, founded in 2016, has started a variety of programs designed to address issues of mass incarceration. The Pivot Program and Paralegal Fellowship Program, two certification programs within the PJI, are designed to prepare formerly incarcerated students in the fields of business and law, respectively.
Georgetown is proud to partner with PJI, and expanding the Prison Scholar’s Program is a testament to the rehabilitative powers of education, according to University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95).
“As a University, we have a responsibility to advance the common good and empower the members of our community to share in this important work,” DeGioia wrote in an email to The Hoya, “As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, this commitment has been a long-standing element of Georgetown’s mission, and I’m grateful that this expansion of the Prison Scholars Program will ensure that future leaders who are currently incarcerated will be able to access the Georgetown academic experience as members of our community.”
PJI will accept applications from incarcerated persons across the Maryland state prison system and evaluate applicants on preparedness, motivation and potential to succeed in the program. The application will consist of both admissions exams and interviews, according to a university press release. Applicants who are accepted from other prisons will be transferred to the Patuxent Institution to participate in the program.
The program comes at a pivotal time for the American criminal justice system, as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated prisons and incarcerated individuals across the country. PJI also faced COVID-19-related challenges over the past year, including the Prison Scholars Program’s transition to virtual learning.
Despite these changes, PJI has remained committed to advocating for the lives of incarcerated persons. The new program’s launch feels like a light at the end of the tunnel after the past year away from interacting with incarcerated persons in-person, according to Howard.
“I cannot wait. I have been going to prisons and jails for many years, pretty much weekly since 2014,” Howard said. “To not have been able to go in for almost a year is almost painful for me, but I always keep in mind it’s a hundred times more of a nightmare for people inside. They are excited and we are excited.”
Beyond providing a transformative opportunity for incarcerated students, PJI is hopeful the program’s graduates will go on to initiate broader, nationwide prison reform, according to Miller.
“My expectation is that the United States is going to come to terms with the fact that it over-incarcerates,” Miller said. “It is probably going to take a couple of decades at least to undo what we have done, but I think that the students that Georgetown educates at Patuxent will be the leaders of that movement.”
Colleagues at peer institutions have already reached out to PJI for advice on creating similar programs that advocate for prison reform and education, indicating Georgetown is leading the way for prison reform, according to Howard.
“I think that we are setting a new example, reaching a new level, that I hope will help both other universities and our society overall recognize the tremendous potential of incarcerated people, that their lives have value,” Howard said. “If we humanize them and support them, they will become truly successful. They will become wonderful family members and community members. There are a lot of reasons to support this work.”