Programs Let Inmates Earn University Degree While in Prison

26 December, 2017

In 2012, Rena Sard was sentenced to five years in prison at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. She was 47 years old.

"I didn't have five years of my life to waste...So, every chance that I had to do something that was productive, something that was going to help me become a better person, I grabbed it."

Sard enrolled in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP). GPEP is a program with Goucher College, a private university located north of the city of Baltimore. With GPEP, and programs like it, inmates can use their time in prison to make progress towards their first college degrees.

But the work is not easy.

For five years, Sard woke up at 4:30 each morning. She ate breakfast, did her job at the prison's mental health clinic, and then went to her college classes.

Last January, Sard finished her sentence, and next spring she will finish her first Associate's degree. Officers tell her that she is a completely different person than the one who entered prison.

Sard credits her time with GPEP for that change. She believes it helped give her the strength to be a better person, and the motivation to do something with her life.

"It helped me take a very bad situation and make it into the best that I could possibly do while I was there."

Turning time into degrees

Along with the women's prison where Sard was, GPEP has partnered with the Maryland Correctional Institute Jessup, a prison for men. During the program's five-year existence, it has grown from 15 students to around 100, says Jennifer Munt, assistant director for College Operation.

A GPEP student in class at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. (Courtesy Rob Ferrell / Goucher College)
A GPEP student in class at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. (Courtesy Rob Ferrell / Goucher College)

To be admitted to the program, inmates go through an admission process similar to an on-campus program. The program also requires students to have a GED or high school degree. They then complete a paper application, sit for a placement exam, and have an individual interview.

The program offers only one degree, American Studies. But students have many choices of classes, including sociology, history and philosophy.

What is most important, Munt says, is that students are free to follow academic studies that interest them.

"We do ask of all faculty and volunteers with GPEP that they not look up students' histories, because we think that is information that the students should be in control of... we want students to have the freedom to be students."

Munt also said that students are not required to write or talk about their time in prison or why they were incarcerated. She added that, sometimes, students may choose to explore these topics in class on their own, however.

After starting the program, students take courses taught by professors from Goucher College and other nearby universities. The professors are all experts in their fields. Munt says it is important that they also have "a history of good teaching."

Programs like these are not common in the United States. In 1994, a crime bill ended prisoners' ability to apply for federal student assistance. Since then, it has been difficult for inmates to take college-level courses while in prison. Programs like GPEP have existed, but had to rely on private donations.

However, last year the U.S. Department of Education started a program called the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program to bring back student aid for prisoners. They selected Goucher College as one of the recipients of the program.

Turning something bad into something good

For GPEP students like Sard, the chance to spend a prison sentence as a student can be life-changing.

"Before I went in, I had no self-esteem, no self-confidence, no self-worth. I suffered from a very horrible childhood. The best word to describe myself would have been I was ‘broken'.... I was a shell"

For Sard, learning she could succeed at school helped her realize her own worth. After she started to receive good grades in her classes, she gained self-confidence. She realized that she had the ability to be more productive in her life.

"I really, truly believe the more that you can stay busy and occupied doing something that's productive, the better you're doing your time. To sit around and just do nothing... that stuff will drive you batty."

Sard did not have the chance to finish her degree while at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. But after finishing her sentence in January, she immediately started classes at Chesapeake College to complete her Associate's degree in Human Services. She will then go to Salisbury University to finish her Bachelor's degree.

Next, Sard says, she would like to work as a social worker, helping women who have been abused, or are suffering from addiction.

Rena Sard, a former GPEP student, has now finished her sentence and is enrolled in Chesapeake College.
Rena Sard, a former GPEP student, has now finished her sentence and is enrolled in Chesapeake College.

Supporting inmates' education

There are other programs like GPEP that support inmates' education.

In New York State, an organization called the Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) has partnered with Otisville Correctional Facility to provide college-level classes for inmates. However, PRI students do not earn their degrees in prison, but after.

"That was intentional," says Bianca Vanheydoorn, Director of Educational Initiatives for PRI. "We wanted them to use the time while inside to earn the credits, but we also wanted them to have the campus experience."

The program also supports inmates after they finish their sentences and are applying to colleges. It provides academic counselors, as well as connections with students in the community.

For PRI, the support and communication outside the prison is as important as the work that happens inside.

"We are safely in contact with about 90 percent of the students. Of those who have come home, half have enrolled in school," she said.

Vanheydoorn says about 300 students in their program have earned degrees since 2002.

'Like being in Niagara Falls...on a toothpick'

While programs like these have been successful, the biggest difficulty is meeting the large need of the institutions they serve.

"We've gotten hundreds of letters from people on the inside looking to get in," says Munt. "It's like being in Niagara Falls, and they raft we are on is a toothpick".

Vanheydoorn adds that PRI's first goal is making sure they are giving the best service they can to students with their current partnerships. However, PRI would like to experiment with different ways to support students during and after their time in prison.

Both Vanheydoorn and Munt agree that programs like these are important to helping prisoners adjust to life outside of prison.

Sard agrees.

"When you come home, it's scary...GPEP gives you the education...and the knowledge that will help you to come home and to stay home."

I'm Alice Bryant.

And I'm Phil Dierking.

Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

Do you think prisoners should have access to education programs while in prison? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

academic - adj. of or relating to schools and education

addiction - n. a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)

apply - v. to ask formally for something (such as a job, admission to a school, a loan, etc.) usually in writing

batty - adj. foolish or silly

confidence - n. a feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something

inmate - n. a person who is kept in a prison or mental hospital

incarcerate - v. to put (someone) in prison

productive - adj. doing or achieving a lot

motivation - n. the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something

self-esteem - n. a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities

toothpick - n. a short, pointed stick used for removing small pieces of food from between your teeth