From a prison cell to a college degree: Second Chance program now at Bowie State University

Maryland’s Bowie State University is now offering people serving time at Jessup Correctional Institution the opportunity to earn a degree in sociology and a certificate in entrepreneurship.

The Institute for Restorative Justice’s prison education program is made possible through Bowie State’s participation in the Second Chance Pell Grant program, allowing people in prison to take classes toward a degree and an optional entrepreneurship certificate.

“We have to do a much better job educating ourselves about returning citizens,” said Professor Charles Adams, chair of the Bowie State Department of Criminal Justice.

In the press release announcing the program, Adams said it’s important to recognize that those who are serving time will eventually re-enter society. And he said it’s important to allow those who have completed their prison sentences “an opportunity to re-engage and be productive within our society. That’s all individuals want, is an opportunity” said Adams.

Adams points to the success of one Maryland resident, James Ruffin III, who entered the Second Chance program and enrolled at the University of Baltimore while he was in prison on drug distribution charges.

In discussing the merits of the program, Adams said, “The biggest selling point is James Ruffin” explaining that Ruffin took the opportunity to attend classes while in prison, and continued after his release, eventually graduating magna cum laude.

Ruffin graduated in 2021 with a degree in Human Services Administration and has been working in logistics at a warehouse for a retail outlet. He’s continued to take classes and is currently enrolled in courses on supply chain management.

Ruffin said when the Second Chance program was offered, he was already taking classes offered at Jessup. “The classes for the most part are just a way to build up a portfolio to show the institution, to show your judge or the parole commission that you’re actually doing something with your time, that you’re progressing,” said Ruffin.

But then there was an English 101 course where students had to read an excerpt from a reading, and then look at the reading through the eyes of each character. “It allowed me to open up my eyes, I had that, I guess you could call it that ‘Aha moment’ when I started looking at the world through different lenses.”

Ruffin said he’s been working to persuade his younger brother to get his degree. “It shows that you can focus on something for a long period of time, that you’re dependable that you’re reliable, that you’re task-driven,” said Ruffin.

While he’s making progress towards his goals, Ruffin says there are still obstacles when looking for new positions. As former prisoners meet the conditions for parole and probation, they may go to court to have their records updated. But an employer may simply see that there’s been an additional court appearance. So Ruffin says a prospective employer may see that he’s been in court in 2020 “so it looks like you’ve just been in trouble” said Ruffin.

Both Adams and Ruffin are hopeful that with the expansion of Second Chance programs at more colleges and universities, future employers will feel more comfortable hiring graduates who were at one point incarcerated.

Adams said while Bowie State has just 7 people in the program right now, there’s a plan to expand to as many as 100. Adams said HBCUs or historically Black colleges and universities have a unique role to play for many former prisoners.

Ruffin agreed, explaining that HBCUs “give you a sense of family” with supportive fraternities and a history of mentorship. “I think the guys would really gravitate towards that,” said Ruffin.

A similar program offering a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree was initiated by Georgetown University in March at the same correctional institution. Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program has offered courses to incarcerated persons since 2018.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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