December 9, 2013

Colleges brings liberal arts education into prisons

By Nick Anderson
The Washington Post

— The Goucher College professor handed out an essay question one fall evening to an unusual group of political science students, an assignment meant to draw out their views on the health of American democracy in its third century.

"There are no right or wrong answers here," Eric Singer told them. They were to cite documents dating to the Constitution and the Federalist Papers to make their arguments. One student asked whether he could reference philosophers from ancient Greece and the Enlightenment.

"If you want to throw in a little Aristotle and John Locke, I'd be most pleased to read it," Singer replied. When class wrapped up, he left for a rainy drive home. His six students had no choice but to stay.

The men would eat, study, sleep, wake up and work, as they must, inside a prison complex surrounded by high fences and coils of barbed wire. Their campus is the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup. No ivory towers here. Just guard towers.

The class from the private college in the suburbs north of Baltimore is part of a movement to bring liberal arts education to a sector of society where it is scarce.

Goucher is among relatively few selective colleges that offer courses for credit inside prisons. Others include Bard College, Wesleyan University and Cornell University. Advocates say the efforts have multiple payoffs: heightened awareness within prisons of the importance of education; invaluable opportunities for faculty and others at the colleges to dispel stereotypes about teaching and learning; and lower recidivism rates for students after they are released.

"All of us need to stop thinking about education of incarcerated people as some sort of luxury that they don't deserve," said Cornell President David Skorton, whose university teaches New York prisoners in partnership with a community college. "It's in their interest, but it's also in society's interest."

Goucher offers a range of undergraduate courses to nearly 60 inmates at men's and women's prisons in Maryland through a program launched in January 2012 with private funding. The inmates pay no tuition and are given free books and supplies.

Those who pass the college courses earn credits on a Goucher transcript. The college describes them as full-fledged Goucher students - peers of the other 2,100 enrolled at the school this fall.

Alphonso Coates, 42, one of Singer's students, imprisoned for possession of drugs with intent to distribute, said he expects to be released in about two years. "I'm developing into a different person because of the liberal arts," Coates said. "I'm sold on it. They teach us a lot about everything - theater, politics, sociology."

Coates said he would like to obtain a bachelor's degree in sociology. "I want to help children, get them to not make the same mistakes I did," he said. "I don't want to be a burden anymore. I want to be prosperous."

College classes within prisons once had significant federal support. Pell grants, which help students in financial need, were available to inmates for about two decades starting in the 1970s. But a 1994 law made inmates ineligible for the grants, ending a key source of funding for numerous programs. At the time, the government estimated that more than 25,000 prisoners received Pell grants in the first nine months of the 1993-94 school year, at a cost of $35 million.

Experts say there is no authoritative count of inmates now taking college classes in prison. But in many states there has been a sharp decline.

"For well over a generation, college opportunity was widespread in American prisons - and now, by and large, it isn't," said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which since 2001 has enabled more than 250 New York inmates to obtain college degrees.

While many inmates lack a high school diploma and are not ready for college, state-funded prison education typically focuses on goals such as helping inmates pass the GED high school equivalency test or obtain vocational skills.

Still, academics from Goucher and elsewhere have discovered a hunger for higher education behind bars. In 2005, some Goucher faculty volunteered for a book club at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. It quickly grew into something more.

"The women in the book club said, 'It's all well and good to read stories, but we'd like to write, too,' " said Barbara Roswell, an assistant English professor at Goucher. Writing workshops were begun.

"It didn't take very long before those of us involved said this is college-level work," Roswell said. In many cases, she said, the papers and discussions were "every bit as rich and stimulating as what goes on in our college classrooms. Sometimes more so."

Seeking to establish a formal Goucher program, Roswell connected with the Bard initiative. That led to a seed grant for the Goucher Prison Education Partnership.

Now the college offers six courses for credit, as well as a handful of college-preparatory classes. To qualify, inmates must have a GED or high school diploma. Applicants are screened through interviews and written questions, but their criminal records are not considered. The annual budget is nearly $250,000, said Amy Roza, the partnership director.

Goucher President Sanford Ungar said he aims to raise enough money to help the partnership continue after he retires in June. He visited the prisons in April to speak with students.

 "I found out very quickly, you don't talk down to these people," Ungar said. "They are every bit as smart as other students. I was blown away by the level of intellectual discourse in the room."

At the women's prison one afternoon last week, students gathered in a library to work on an assignment for a course called "Cultural Psychology: Black Psychology."

Stephanie Spicer, 30 - imprisoned for robbery and drug offenses, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services - said she has a grade-point average of 3.87 after taking several classes. She said she has two daughters, ages 2 and 4, and hopes to apply her Goucher credits toward an associate's degree. "When I'm released, I'll have a foundation to lean on," she said. "I want to make better choices."

Monnek Hall, 31, serving a sentence for assault, said her Goucher courses in psychology, English and algebra offer relief from the prison routine. "It's been a blessing for us to get away from the everyday nonsense that goes on in a place like this," she said. Hall hopes eventually to get a bachelor's degree in social work.

Nearly all inmates in the program have jobs - for example, sewing uniforms, printing posters or distributing supplies, among many other tasks. A typical work shift might start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m., leaving time for classes and studies in the afternoon and evening, according to Margaret Chippendale, assistant warden of the 806-inmate women's prison. The Goucher courses boost self-esteem and reduce idleness, she said. "When they're busy, they tend to stay out of trouble," she said.

 Dayena Corcoran, warden of the 1,031-inmate men's prison, said students are proud of their academic prowess. "I had a couple of them come up to me and show me the grades on their papers," she said. "They were really excited."

Goucher doesn't water down the courses, but it tries to give students as much support as possible. Professors come to the prison periodically for "office hours." Inmates are not allowed Internet access, so the college supplies texts and research materials.

Discussion in Singer's class on that evening covered lobbying and campaign finance, the influence of business interests on Congress and the problems facing towns when a manufacturer shuts down a plant to relocate in Mexico. Political gifts provide donors "direct access to congressmen," one student observed. Those who don't give, another said, don't get their views heard.

Singer said afterward that the course has been a revelation. "I think all faculty should teach here," he said. "It shatters the settled assumptions you have about teaching."