Maryland HBCU Offers Incarcerated Students College Degrees

Bowie State University aims to help incarcerated people avoid returning to prison by providing a path to higher education.
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  • People incarcerated at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland now have the opportunity to gain a fully accredited bachelor's degree in sociology from Bowie State University.
  • The goal of the program is to help prevent incarcerated people from reoffending once they get out of prison.
  • Tuition for students is free, courtesy of the Second Chance Pell Grant program.
  • The program will expand to include incarcerated women in the spring of 2024.

Men incarcerated at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland can now earn a bachelor's degree, courtesy of Bowie State University, one of the country's historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The full-length, 120-credit program is free and aims to equip incarcerated people with the educational tools they'll need to help them succeed upon reentering society.

Prison education programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, or reoffending. People who participate in education programs while incarcerated are 48% less likely to return to prison than those who don't, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

The link between education and recidivism is clear: the higher the education, the less likely the chance of recidivism, Dr. Charles Adams, Criminal Justice Department chair at Bowie State and co-director of the prison education initiative, told BestColleges.

By giving these men a chance at higher education, we can potentially keep them out of prison, thereby improving their lives, the lives of their families, and benefitting society as a whole.

All participants in the program will work toward a degree in sociology, according to a Bowie State press release, with an optional certificate available in entrepreneurship.

It is the first program of its kind to be offered by an HBCU in Maryland, and only the second in the state. The first, administered by the University of Baltimore, began in 2016 and similarly focuses on a partnership with Jessup Correctional Institution.

Providing a Path to Success

The partnership between Bowie State and Jessup began last fall with an introductory class of nine students, Dr. Anthony Jackson, Bowie State University sociology program coordinator and co-director of the prison education initiative, told BestColleges.

It has since grown to include 19 students, each of whom is entitled to free tuition under the terms of the federal government's Second Chance Pell Grant program.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's website, the program works with colleges, like Bowie State, in an attempt to help incarcerated individuals access educational programs ... to support reentry, empower formerly incarcerated persons, enhance public safety, and strengthen our communities and our economy.

The program began in 2015 under the Obama administration as the Second Chance Pell Experiment. Over 700,000 incarcerated people are now Pell Grant eligible and have access to higher education.

Real World Education

Currently, all program participants take three 2.5-hour classes per week, according to Jackson. Introductory courses include:

  • Sociology
  • Writing for sociology
  • Freshman seminar

When students finish introductory courses, they move on to more involved courses in:

  • Philosophy
  • Public speaking
  • History

The internet is barred at Jessup Correctional Institution — as it is in many prisons — so adjunct professors from Bowie State teach all courses in person. The university provides textbooks as part of a shared library program, along with supplemental instruction, like tutoring.

But don't mistake any of it for special treatment.

Students at Jessup still have to apply and go through the same evaluation process as every other student on campus, Adams said. A high school or GED diploma is required for admittance, and hard work is not just encouraged, it's expected.

We want everyone to know that our students [at Jessup Correctional Institution] are not subject to any special accommodations. They are expected to perform scholastically on an ongoing basis at a satisfactory level.

According to Jackson, the program is expected to take students approximately six years to complete. If students are released during that time, all credits are fully transferable to any accredited collegiate institution in the U.S.

Creating Educational, Employment Pathways

Yet another goal of the program is wide-scale social progress.

As Jackson explained, HBCUs, like Bowie State, have a responsibility to work toward advancing minority and historically excluded communities. This responsibility includes people in prison.

HBCUs have been established to provide educational opportunities for Black and marginalized communities, Jackson said. Traditionally, the folks that were locked out of higher education were able to receive education from HBCUs. So we've always had our fingers on the pulse of the Black community and marginalized communities in general. What we're doing with the prison education program is continuing that legacy.

In Maryland, 71% of the incarcerated population is Black, compared to 29% of the population of the state as a whole, according to The Sentencing Project. These figures are the driving force behind what Jackson calls Bowie State's prison-to-HBCU pipeline.

As an HBCU, we ask ourselves, How can we make pathways for Black and marginalized communities to have upward mobility? Jackson said. This program helps us to lead the charge in doing the work of creating educational and employment pathways for people in these communities that will enrich their lives and ultimately help them contribute in a meaningful way to society.

But the program still faces hurdles.

The Second Chance Pell Grant program only covers tuition costs for students, Jackson said. And this leaves additional funding for staff and materials up to the university. So it makes expanding the program a particularly difficult task in light of Bowie State's designation as a public HBCU.

HBCUs have a history of being dramatically underfunded, Jackson said. That's part of what we're up against. We want to grow this program but don't have the money to do so. We are actively seeking funding.

Jackson said that more funds could be used to employ additional adjuncts, buy more textbooks, and help smooth out certain logistical challenges that are inherent in functioning within a prison.

He noted that 45 inmates sought acceptance to the most recent cohort. Most would have been welcomed to participate if funding were not such an issue.

Building on the Blueprint

Despite the funding issues, plans for growing the program are ever in the works, Jackson said. Expanding library availability, introducing university-owned loaner laptops, and hiring more adjuncts — with what little funds are available — are just some of the plans on the horizon.

A pilot program for incarcerated women is also slated to start in a neighboring facility at Jessup in spring 2024. It will focus on reentry skills, rather than formal, university-level education.

It's a job-training model where incarcerated females will be given skills and training as part of their transitioning from incarceration back to the community, Adams said.

Prison education programs have been found to greatly increase a person's chances of staying out of prison. It's findings like these, Jackson said, that ultimately drive the program at Bowie State University and compel administrators and adjuncts to participate despite funding and logistical challenges.

Also, it's work done for a cause.

We're proud to be doing the work we're doing here at Bowie State University, Jackson said. We believe it's our mission to make sure that people have the opportunity to thrive, no matter their past or what community they come from. And we're going to do everything possible to make that happen.