Enrolling in a college degree program was attractive to Kyle Longerbeam only because of the extra time he’d get to spend outside his prison cell. The 37-year-old is originally from West Virginia but now resides in Anne Arundel County’s Jessup Correctional Institution, which houses nearly 2,000 men.
He never took education seriously and didn’t intend to take Bowie State University’s program seriously, either. “The professors and Bowie itself changed my thought process on that,” Longerbeam said.
Last fall, Bowie State became the first historically Black university in Maryland to offer a bachelor’s degree program at a correctional facility, according to college officials. Its fall semester class began this week, for about 20 men studying sociology. A pilot for women incarcerated in a neighboring facility starts this fall, too.
It joins the University of Baltimore, which has offered college courses at the maximum-security men’s prison since 2016.
Bowie State’s foray into prison education coincides with an expansion of the Second Chance Pell Grant, making federal financial aid available to an estimated 760,000 incarcerated students this year. People who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are 48% less likely to return to prison than those who don’t, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
“This program is important to every citizen of Maryland because 90% of those who come in come back out,” Charles Adams, chair of Bowie State’s department of criminal justice, said. “It’s far more damaging to release someone who is ill equipped.”
At a press event in August, the students gathered inside the prison’s library, clearly marked by its bright-colored mural of books within a labyrinth of white walls. Shelves inside the library had plenty of room for more books, but popular reads such as “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and “Star Wars” titles were on display.
Longerbeam said sociology wasn’t a subject he knew anything about, but in the last year he’s written a report on Marxism, and he’s been intrigued by Harry Edwards, a sports sociologist who studies the connections among race, sports and society.
“That’s any guy’s dream right there,” he said about Edwards’ profession.
Adams said the program could take six or seven years for Jessup students to complete, though he’d support anyone who’d want to pick up the pace. He said it gives them a “second chance in life.”
Mark Booker, one of the instructors, was encouraged by the students’ hunger to learn more. It’s a sign the program is going well. But more could be done. He said students want more classes, access to online research journals and more tutoring time with the instructor. He debated making himself available to them on weekends.
It’s important for students to have face time with the professor, according to Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher of correctional education at the Rand Corp. It helps the class “think of themselves not as an inmate but as a student.”
“We definitely need more resources,” Jermain Williams, one of the students, said.
He recommended more books, a printer and a projector. The 37-year-old is taking math and science this fall, and he anticipates needing extra tutoring.
As one of the consultants for Bowie’s program, Ron Garrett suggests the students have their own living quarters. That’s what helped him when he was taking classes in a Georgia prison. He earned his bachelor’s in theology and his master’s and Ph.D. in ministry during his 20-year sentence.
“When we were all in one housing unit, it was absolutely not a conducive place to study,” he said.
It is also helpful, Davis said, to give students the ability to transfer credits to another school after they’re released, to have instructors who are just as experienced as the professors on the college campus and for both the university and the prison to have the resources and funding available to make the program sustainable.
Adams said they are “aggressively” seeking external funding and working to hire more staff, like adjunct professors.
Booker also wants to see more professors participate in the program but learned some are fearful of the task. His students questioned if he was afraid of being their teacher, Booker said. He wasn’t because he’s taught in a prison before.
Looking at his class reminded him of when he attended Howard University. As a Black man, it was important for him to see someone who looked like him and who he could relate to. He’s happy he can be that for his mostly Black students.
In Maryland, Black people are over-represented in prisons, making up 71% of the incarcerated population but only 29% of the state’s, according to a 2021 report by The Sentencing Project.
During the summer, students met Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 to 6 p.m. for science, writing, reading, technology and math classes. Last fall, they took freshman seminar and Intro to Sociology.
To join the educational program, applicants must have a high school diploma or GED. Reviewers of the application consider the prospective student’s grade-point average, writing sample and letter of recommendation. Any incarcerated person taking college classes is put on an “academic hold,” meaning they cannot be transferred to another facility while in the program, according to Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The facility reviews every application and can refuse anyone with “recent disciplinary infractions,” officials from the public safety department said.
Carolyn Scruggs, secretary of the department, said a degree from Bowie State’s program could lead to a master’s degree in social work. Students could also enter the criminal justice field, she added, “because they’re the mentors that lived that experience.”
Damon McDuffie, 27, said he didn’t initially put much effort into planning for his future.
“I was just doing day by day,” McDuffie said. “I just decided to take a bigger step in furthering my education and just trying.”
Since enrolling, he said, he’s become more disciplined, more structured and stricter with his time management. Now, he has plans to start a youth mentorship program after he graduates.