Fair Chance Higher Education looks to increase on-campus support for justice-impacted students, build prison education program

By Gabriel Donahue, Editor in Chief

A campus community dedicated to increasing opportunities and support for individuals impacted by the criminal justice system. Not reactive, but anticipatory and understanding of their needs and willing to meet them. 

This is the vision of the Fair Chance Higher Education initiative headed by criminal justice professor Elyshia Aseltine.

Fair Chance is a network of Towson University faculty under the Office of the Provost that aims to break down the barriers that prevent incarcerated and previously-incarcerated people from accessing higher education. 

The group plans to open an on-campus center that will house full-time staff dedicated to advancing its mission and provide support for students who have gone through with the criminal justice system or have loved ones who have. 

The center was supposed to open this semester in the Lecture Hall, but plans have been delayed due to renovations that will happen over the summer, Aseltine said. 

Fair Chance has the goal of establishing a “pipeline for justice-impacted students to enter TU” through a prison education program, according to its website. This too has been on the backburner, disrupted by the pandemic, Aseltine said. 

These efforts come as prison education programs ramp up nationwide. They allow incarcerated people to take college courses while serving their sentences through partnerships between higher education institutions and prisons. 

Research has shown these types of initiatives reduce recidivism rates. One such study in 2018, sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that prison education participants were 28% less likely to return to prison than those who do not. 

Sara Citroni participated in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership, another prison support program based at Goucher College, a private institution near Baltimore. Citroni was incarcerated at the Women’s Correctional Institution, a medium security state prison in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. 

She spoke on the impact of her participation in the program at a Nov. 15 panel hosted by Fair Chance at Albert S. Cook Library.  

“I was always afraid I would get out and people could tell [I was in prison],” Citroni said. “The prison environment teaches you a certain way to be and I didn’t want to be that … I attribute so much of my growth to [the tutors], the communication, the one-on-one.”

A group of Towson professors saw this sentiment playout firsthand during a six-year participation in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, Aseltine said. Inside-Out is a program based out of Temple University, a Pennsylvania public college, that trains educators to work with incarcerated students and coordinates classes inside prisons nationwide. 

In an effort to expand the impact of such a program, the participating Towson professors created Fair Chance in 2020, Aseltine said. 

They’ve now spent the past few years teaching Towson’s campus about what colleges could be doing to support formerly incarcerated people and establishing a network across campus that can meet the needs of these students, according to a document outlining a proposal for the group to have a standing committee in Towson’s provost office.

“With established campus-wide support, we are in a good position to move towards meaningfully embedding this work into the structure of the University,” the proposal states. 

Fair Chance has continued to expand, creating subgroups within itself. 

The Community of Practice is a branch of the organization that hosts regular events to educate the campus community on challenges faced by incarcerated people. At least 220 individual students and faculty have attended its events thus far, Aseltine said. 

Fair Chance faculty have also worked with students to develop Uplifting Lives, a student-led organization that plans to be housed in the on-campus center.

Uplifting Lives’s leaders, sophomores Kamryn Johnson and Bryah Spruill, said they are directly impacted by this issue, as they both have incarcerated family members. They said the student group’s goal is to spread awareness on the impacts of incarceration on families and provide support for students impacted by the criminal justice system. 

The club plans to perform community service, host events, collaborate with other groups and promote the work the faculty group is doing, Johnson said. 

She said the group wants to connect with students who might feel isolated or uncomfortable discussing these issues.

“It’s very emotional to handle it by yourself, so we just want to be a support system for everyone else going through it. We can all talk about it together and figure it out, just be here for one another,” she said.

Programs to help incarcerated people transition after their release are expanding. The U.S. Department of Education broadened what’s known as the Second Chance Pell Experiment last year. The pilot, now with 200 colleges, allows federal financial aid to be given to people in state and federal prison education programs.

And the University System of Maryland is exploring starting a system-wide prison education program that would allow current and formerly incarcerated people to enroll at its institutions.

The system’s regent board established a workgroup in September to explore the best way to develop a program. The workgroup will first meet in June, a system spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.

There are various potential funding sources to develop a program, Bill Wood, a member of the system regent board, said at a meeting that month. These include grants from private foundations and federal agencies. 

This type of program could benefit incarcerated Marylanders by easing their transition into one of the system colleges, according to an emailed statement from the University System in March.

Bowie State University, a historically Black college in the system, has created a prison education initiative. And Wood said at September’s meeting that system colleges like Coppin State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the University of Baltimore have started programs as well.

“Though a few colleges in Maryland have been offering programs inside state prisons for some time, it is exciting to see the University System thinking about making prison-based higher education a statewide priority,” Aseltine said in an emailed statement in March. “We are hopeful that USM leadership will open up new opportunities for collaboration and funding, as well as policy development.” 

Eliza Cornejo is the executive director of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership, which has been operating since 2012. She said it is exciting that the system is exploring a prison education program. 

“Most people who go to college on the outside have all the schools in the world to consider,” she said. “Students who are in prison just don’t have that ability right now, and the more schools in prisons, the better.” 

With limited educational opportunities inside Maryland prisons, only a couple hundred people are able to participate in the state’s prison education programs, Cornejo estimated, and only in specific locations. Therefore, incarcerated students are at risk of being unable to continue their education if moved to another prison. 

“If someone is transferred out of the prison we offer classes in or to a prison that offers no classes then … that’s a huge loss for them and for all of us,”  Cornejo said. 


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