Incarcerated students see a brighter future with expanded programming from Georgetown initiative

The education programs offered through Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) are providing new opportunities for incarcerated students at the DC Jail and the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland, to realize their potential, engage with peers, and build their careers. Taught by distinguished Georgetown faculty, the programs offer for-credit and non-credit courses that allow students to challenge themselves academically and prepare for the workforce as returning citizens. In the last two years, the programs expanded to include a career-readiness digital literacy course and a mixed-gender Bachelor of Liberal Arts program—a rarity in U.S. prison education.

Building technical knowledge

Since 2018, PJI’s Prison Scholars Program has offered a range of non-credit and credit-bearing courses at the DC Jail, including ethics, biology, and personal finance. Those offerings have now expanded to include computer science, made possible through PJI’s partnership with Brave Behind Bars, a 12-week computer science program out of The Education Justice Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Launched in 2021 across correctional facilities throughout New England, Brave Behind Bars eventually grew to include East Coast facilities, such the DC Jail. In Fall 2023, the Prison Scholars Program and Georgetown’s Department of Computer Science collaborated with Brave Behind Bars to offer a Georgetown-accredited 12-week computer science course, which covers the basics of HTML, CSC, and JavaScript and concludes with a capstone project in which students build their own websites. 

“The Department of Computer Science was enthusiastic to work with Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative and Brave Behind Bars to help facilitate the [w]eb development course offered to the Prison Scholars at the DC Jail,” says Mark Maloof, Georgetown professor in the Department of Computer Science. “It is a valuable addition to the prison education program as it provides an introduction to incarcerated individuals to highly sought after technical knowledge and skills.”

Impact of a liberal arts education

In early 2022, PJI launched a 120-credit Bachelor of Liberal Arts program at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland, modeled after Georgetown’s on-campus undergraduate programs. In Fall 2022, the program enrolled its second cohort, the first one to have mixed-gender classes.

Vonté Gaffney was part of the inaugural cohort at the Patuxent Institution. The Bachelor of Liberal Arts program was the first formal education he received since stopping out of high school and eventually earning his GED. The academic experience has been “life-changing,” Gaffney says, and he plans to use his Georgetown education to become a criminal legal advocate and mentor to young people so they make different choices from the ones he made in his youth.

“If given the proper resources or opportunity to display our talents and skill sets, our actual experience and success can create a lightning rod for others,” he says. “A lot of people in the system are rooting for us. They know that if we can be successful, they can be successful.”

Amy McNamara, a clerk in the education department at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, was one of the first women to be accepted into the Bachelor of Liberal Arts program at Patuxent, which has an acceptance rate of less than 10%. “​​Knowing that I was one of the first ones picked made me want to see it through and open the door for other women who will come after me,” says McNamara, who had previously stopped out of college. She expects to return home early this year and aims to complete her degree as a returning citizen. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career as a paralegal and has expressed interest in the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program.

“When you have programs like this, it’s helping all of those people that have the opportunity to take the courses inside to not come back,” she said. “Georgetown is one of those things that is going to keep us out.”

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