Growing up, Dorain Grogan never pictured himself as a college student. Now, he’s in the classroom four days a week, reading Plato and Frederick Douglass and working toward a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown.
Grogan was one of twenty-five incarcerated individuals accepted into the first cohort of Georgetown’s new Bachelor of Liberal Arts program at the Patuxent Institution, a prison facility in Jessup, MD. He almost didn’t apply: It took an encouraging phone call with his father to convince him to submit his essays and application in Fall 2021.
“Initially, I didn’t think that I would be enough to make it. I didn’t think I had much of a chance,” Grogan says. “Being accepted into the program reaffirmed that I am capable, and I am enough.”
For Grogan, the experience of being in a college classroom – even within the walls of a prison – has been life-changing. “Programs like this humanize us. We often forget we’re human,” Grogan says. “There’s good within me and others that we can still grasp.”
A Bachelor’s Degree in Prison
Georgetown launched its new degree program at the beginning of 2022, creating a significant higher education opportunity for individuals incarcerated in Maryland. The program is run by the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI), which offers education and training to open doors for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in Washington, DC.
Last fall, PJI expanded the program with a second coed cohort — an extremely rare learning environment in U.S. prisons systems — offering the same bachelor’s degree opportunity to both men and women in the same classroom.
Georgetown President John DeGioia said the bachelor’s degree program represents the university’s commitment to advancing its Jesuit mission beyond the Hilltop. “This new Bachelor of Liberal Arts program is an expression of our university’s deeply held values — our commitment to education, service and the common good — and we are honored to welcome these new students as members of our Georgetown community,” DeGioia said.
The 120-credit interdisciplinary program, offered through the Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences, is modeled after undergraduate degree offerings on Georgetown’s main campus and brings the university’s history of liberal arts in the Jesuit tradition to incarcerated students.
Each semester, students take two classes with Georgetown faculty and have access to additional academic support. After completing the degree’s core requirements, students choose from three majors — cultural humanities, interdisciplinary social science, and global intellectual history — and tailor their studies with electives. It will take most students about five years to complete the degree.
The program seeks to create a lasting foundation for academic, professional and personal growth and achievement — educational access that is proven to significantly reduce recidivism, said Marc Howard, director of the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative.
“This degree program is a model for how universities can bring transformative education opportunities into prison and support second chances,” Howard said. “We are excited to welcome new talented students into the classroom and continue Georgetown’s mission of intellectual inquiry and service to others.”
Bringing Jesuit Education to Prison
The bachelor’s program expands Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program, which has offered credit-bearing courses at the Washington, DC, jail since 2018. Students take classes in liberal arts topics through the Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences while they await trial, serve short sentences or prepare to return to their communities after a longer period of incarceration in the federal prison system.
Colie “Shaka” Long, a program associate for PJI, took courses in the Georgetown Prison Scholars program at the DC Jail and found a sense of freedom in education long before he was released from prison in July 2022.
“I used my education to find my liberation even though I was confined,” he told students in the Scholars program at the recent end-of-semester celebration at the jail. “Four months ago, I was in the same jumpsuit. Being in prison is beyond your control, but being a prisoner is optional.”
In addition to educational programs in prison, PJI also offers programs that prepare returning citizens for careers in law and in business and entrepreneurship. Georgetown students also have the opportunity to participate in PJI’s work through the University’s Making an Exoneree course, an intensive semester in which students reinvestigate decades-old likely wrongful convictions, create short documentaries about the cases, and work to help bring people home from prison.
The Benefits of Education in Prison
For students, Georgetown’s bachelor’s program is a rare and welcome opportunity to continue their education, become part of an academic community, and achieve their personal and professional goals.
For Grogan, his classroom experience in prison has been “eye-opening and revelatory.”
Prior to the program, Grogan said he grappled with self-doubt in prison when he was criticized for doing things he enjoyed, like reading, watching anime or teaching himself Japanese. But his love of learning and curiosity led him to apply and be accepted into the first cohort of the program out of more than 300 applicants from across the state of Maryland. The program helped reinforce his own path, he said.
“This program has affirmed that I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “This has allowed me to really be myself.”
Assistant Teaching Professor Emily Hainze, who leads the writing program at the Patuxent Institution, says Grogan has become a valuable member of the classroom community in her writing courses. “Dorain is a careful and creative thinker,” Hainze says. “His classroom presence is focused and thoughtful, and in our discussions, his insights help us see a text from unexpected angles, whether we’re discussing a recent graphic memoir or a 19th century autobiography.”
As he moves forward in the program, Grogan hopes he is also paving the way for other incarcerated people pursuing their own educational goals. “I can create my own path,” he says. “I want to be a beacon for others … and I want to be able to open doors for others.”
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the Prisons and Justice Initiative’s original article on Dorain Grogan. Click here to learn more about PJI’s work and impact. All photos above contributed by Georgetown’s Office of Strategic Communications.
Contributed by the Georgetown University Office of Strategic Communications