As the clock approaches 3 p.m., dozens of students begin pouring into the sun-filled library on campus. Eventually, they fill up six round tables and each student pulls out a Hebrew scripture textbook peppered with Post-it notes. Professor Jerome Copulsky—dressed the part in black-rimmed glasses and a tweed blazer—stands at the front of the room, writing notes on an easel. A giant banner above him reads, “Welcome to Goucher College.” “Those of you doing rewrites, they are due to me next week,” Copulsky says to gain the attention of the class. “Two weeks from today, we’ll have your midterm exam.”
A smattering of nervous giggles fills the room.
“Yes, two weeks from today,” he reiterates. “I’ll be in study hall this coming Monday if you have any questions or things to work on.”
What follows is an engaging two-hour-long discussion of the book of Joshua, King Saul, and divinely ordained monarchy.
It’s a scene that could unfold in a lecture hall at any liberal-arts college around the country, but these students happen to be wearing denim jackets with the acronym “DOC” on the back—and are all inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW).
This class is a part of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP), which is a rare program that offers courses for credit inside prisons. The classes are taught by the same faculty and with the same syllabus as Goucher’s main campus to inmates at both MCIW and Maryland Correctional Institution–Jessup (MCIJ), the men’s prison.
“Many students in prison have never had access to high-quality education,” says program director Amy Roza. “Our professors maintain the same standards as they do on our Towson campus. We never want to stigmatize our students.”
Currently, there are 50 students enrolled at the two prisons, and, while they are earning college credit, they are non-degree candidates.
Many students take classes (and meet with Goucher student-tutors) five days a week, and, in 2012, the retention rate was 88 percent—compared to 69 percent at the average liberal-arts college.
“We’ve had college programs come and go,” says the MCIW warden Margaret Chippendale. “But the true difference with the Goucher program is that the ladies are working toward something. The idea is they will leave here and get a degree.”
While Goucher has been involved with detention centers and prisons as far back as 2005, the school began offering courses for credit when it received a grant in 2012. Roza, who has taught women at Rikers Island and once directed a 300-student program at San Quentin, was brought on to lead the program in the spring of 2012.
“I started seeing fliers posted around,” says Nicole Munshower, 24, who was incarcerated at MCIW for two years for possession of a controlled dangerous substance and a firearm, but was released in March of 2013. “I always wanted to take college classes, but with all the trouble I had gotten in, I didn’t think it would happen.”
The prison process parallels the regular application process. Inmates must have a GED or high school diploma, and then they go through information sessions, interviews, written applications, and placement exams. Goucher staff then determines whether the student is ready for college or their college-prep courses.
“We ask the same questions: ‘Is a person in a place where they are ready to commit? Are they motivated enough to face challenges?’” Roza says. “We look at academic readiness.”
Private grants and donations (about $250,000/year) allow for only 50 students a semester, but Roza says she has received hundreds of letters from inmates from these prisons and others expressing interest in applying.
The idea is particularly timely, as earlier this year New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan—met with much controversy—to provide public financing for basic college-education programs in state prisons. The plan is inspired by the work at Bard College’s Prison Initiative, a sister program of GPEP.
“These kinds of programs build self-esteem,” says Warden Chippendale. “And for so many of these ladies, they had no idea they could do anything; they felt worthless.”
In fact, the concept of taking college courses—Goucher offers everything from Latin American history and Understanding Politics to algebra and English 101—is far-fetched for a lot of the incarcerated students, many of whom grew up with limited financial means.
“I never thought I’d take a college class, as a matter of fact,” says 49-year-old West Baltimore native Denise Dodson who was charged with conspiracy and attempted murder. “I dropped out in 11th grade after getting pregnant with my son, so it was always just a dream for me.”
Now she’s getting A’s and B’s in her classes and developing skills she’d always lacked.
“It’s a struggle for me to keep those grades, but I do it because I want it so bad,” she says. “The difference for me has been night and day. Now, conversations are easier because I have a lot more to talk about.”