Published 5/12/2017 in The Maryland Daily Record
On April 24, I took an afternoon away from my office to visit the men’s and women’s prisons in Jessup. This visit was offered to members of the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle and my friend Lisa Vogel and I jumped at the opportunity.
I visited the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in 2016 and was moved by my experience with the women. This earlier visit was a part of a group that was evaluating a grant for funding from the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle. The grant was to provide necessary support with the administrative and legal needs of long-term inmates who were managing the arduous parole process.
Out of this parole program another group emerged. A regular domestic violence survivors meeting formed to offer a community of support to long-term inmates, most who are survivors of domestic violence.
I was moved to tears by the honesty and humility of these women who so clearly wanted a second chance at life outside of prison. Many of the women shared that the single best opportunity they had been given in prison to find a way forward was by educating themselves. They spoke of their experience as Goucher College students, and it wasn’t until later in 2016 when the Women’s Giving Circle hosted Amy Rosa, the executive director of this program, that I finally understood the special connection between Goucher and the inmates. It was this connection that made me very interested in learning more about their experience as college students and how they were transforming their view of themselves and their futures through education.
The day of our visit this year happened to be a bitter cold rainy day, which seemed most fitting for a prison visit. We met up with Amy Rosa and her team along with several other guests who had various connections that brought them to visit that day. To be allowed to enter the prison, each of us had to follow very strict dress code rules as well as adhere to the rules about what we could bring inside. Ultimately, we entered with nothing other than the clothes on our bodies and a prison-issued security ID card.
After our group made it through the security procedures, we all gathered in a classroom in the library section of the men’s prison. There was a buzz of energy in the area as the men were engaged in their studies, working on computers and doing group work. We were fortunate to have three students join our class discussion so that we could hear from them directly about their coursework, credits earned and their motivation to become college students. Listening to each of them share so openly about their dreams for the future, I found myself filled with tears again. Whenever I see a person trying to better themselves, I can’t help but feel inspired. Regardless of their past deeds each of these men is trying to get their life on track in earnest. All three of them have children who are waiting for them at home. Since becoming college students they talked about how much more pride they feel in themselves as men and especially as parents.
The prison partnership is a satellite of the main campus of Goucher College in Towson. The men told us about their access to education before coming to prison; each story matched what we would expect to hear of a challenging inner-city education. The curriculum that they are studying now as college students in prison mirrors the exact same coursework offered at Goucher’s main campus. Goucher professors teach on-site in the prisons, and the feel of the class is like any other college course. I was amazed by the camaraderie among the men and the way they encouraged each other in their efforts. The energy was so positive, the feeling of hope palpable.
Meaning and purpose
After our visit with the men, we traveled to the women’s prison to sit in on a communications class. When class was over we all moved into a big circle so we could ask students questions and learn more about them and their experience as full-time students. Given that their days start before 5 a.m., they work all day and have classes in the afternoon along with other prison responsibilities, I was interested in hearing how they manage. It was in this part of our discussion that I felt the critical importance of the GPEP program. The women spoke of the hope that being in the program had brought to them during their darkest days; without this program their life had no meaningful purpose.
I understand that not everyone will share my feelings that every life matters. A man that I know upon hearing about my upcoming visit shared his black-and-white views about criminal behavior. I know this can be a very heated topic. However, I believe that if people could see the humanity rather than only the actions of the people, the value of every person’s life would be clear and the investment in providing access to education would be a universal approach to rehabilitation rather than a luxury afforded to a relatively small set of incarcerated people.
To learn more about GPEP, please visit http://www.goucher.edu/academics/other-academic-offerings/goucher-prison-education-partnership.
—Dorie Fain, founder and CEO of &Wealth