The state corrections department on Thursday announced a new agreement with the University System of Maryland that will “establish a framework” to bring higher education programs to every state-run prison, utilizing newly reinstated federal Pell grants to allow incarcerated people to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

The deal, the department says, makes it the first corrections division in the country to formalize an agreement with “an entire state university system.”

Carolyn Scruggs, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in a statement that the agreement was a “milestone” for the agency.

“This historic step puts us closer to ensuring our incarcerated population can improve their lives with education,” said Scruggs, a veteran of the department.

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The memorandum of understanding will allow incarcerated people the opportunity to pursue bachelor’s degrees from any of the 12 universities within the University System of Maryland, according to a press release, using curriculum that is “tailored to the needs and circumstances of incarcerated individuals and the establishment of pathways to continue their education or enter the workforce upon release.”

University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay A. Perman said in the statement that the “foundational aim of higher education is to improve the human condition and serve the public good.”

“By allowing more incarcerated people to access college and to put their education to work after release, we’re not only expanding opportunities for these students, we’re strengthening the communities they return to,” Perman said.

Reforms already on the way to prison education

As the corrections department touts the new partnership, lawmakers have already passed bills now awaiting signatures from the governor that would further reshape prison education.

Del. Marlon Amprey, a Baltimore Democrat, sponsored two bills that passed both chambers: one establishing a prison education delivery reform commission that would develop strategies to improve learning in state-run facilities, and another that would implement new requirements and better track educational outcomes of incarcerated people.

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Amprey said he is motivated by the fact that Maryland, despite having a reputation as a progressive state, has one of the nation’s highest recidivism rates, or rate at which people released from prison re-offend and end up back in those facilities.

And Maryland’s prison system is a leader in racial disparities, Amprey pointed out — about 30% of the state population is Black, but Black people make up about 71% of the prison population.

“There are Republican, truly red states that have better recidivism rates and do a better job of prison education,” Amprey said. “It’s a sad reality we need to fix.”