Up Next

HBCU Education

Advocates at historically Black universities work to expand prison-to-college pipeline

Bowie State, Lane, Howard and Morehouse are among HBCUs offering educational programs and academic degrees to incarcerated citizens

Spring semester classes at Bowie State University will begin next week, which means another class of students incarcerated at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution will begin to take classes from the first historically Black college in Maryland – and one of only four HBCUs in the country – with a full bachelor’s degree program for people imprisoned at a state correctional facility.

Bowie’s prison education program, which offers a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate in entrepreneurial studies, will have 17 incarcerated students enrolled this spring, with 10 more enrolled for fall 2024. The program is designed to be the start of “a prison-to-HBCU pipeline,” said program co-director Anthony Jackson, a sociology professor at Bowie State. Jackson and Charles Adams, the program’s executive director, hope more HBCUs will follow suit.

Several HBCUs engage in education programs for the imprisoned, from Howard University teaching classes inside of the D.C. Jail to a combination of inmates and students to Morehouse College faculty teaching in state prisons in and around Atlanta and throughout Georgia to Lane College participating in Tennessee’s statewide initiative to facilitate degree programs and aid transition back into society for imprisoned people.

Programs like these, whether run by HBCUs or operated with their dedicated participation, “is another extension of what we already do, right?” Jackson said. “We provide opportunities to historically marginalized and underrepresented groups. And just because life chances have situated you in this space, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have access to education, and so that’s where we step in.

“Fundamentally, HBCUs have a cultural competency to be able to navigate this space and deliver educational excellence in a way that no other institution is able to do.”

Bahiyyah Muhammad, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Howard and board member of Jamii Sisterhood, an advocacy program supporting education for incarcerated Black women and their families, came to Howard in 2013 specifically to bring her work educating incarcerated students to a Black-centered institution after taking part in similar programs at predominantly white institutions in New Jersey. It was the genesis of her Policing Inside Out class at Howard, in which students enter the District of Columbia Department of Corrections’ Central Detention Facility to sit and learn with inmates. Jackson was one of the students in the Policing Inside Out class when he was earning his master’s degree at Howard.

“HBCUs need to be more entrenched in this dialogue,” Muhammad said. “These are our families, our children, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts and our uncles – when we look at the population, it mirrors the HBCU. There’s nobody, in administration all the way up to the cabinet level or the board of trustees, that have not been touched by mass incarceration. And so, when you think about the population, because of the Black and brown and the disproportionate numbers of individuals that are affected, who else?

“There literally is no one else that is uniquely situated to be able to not only educate but liberate and love and empathize for this population.”

The HBCUs that do educational work with imprisoned people routinely cite the same historical mission and bond with those people as their chief motivation to fight for implementing and expanding their programs. The number of HBCUs starting or increasing their commitment to such programs has grown in the last five years. Bowie State, Lane College in Tennessee, Claflin University in South Carolina and Wiley College in Texas have undergraduate degree programs. Education programs also have begun in or are affiliated with Langston University in Oklahoma and Mississippi Valley State University.

But those working in these programs want to see even more HBCUs participate, even as advocates acknowledge how stiff the challenges are – particularly noting the same chronic underfunding that plagues similar programs at HBCUs.

“It really boils down to the economic components of it,” Muhammad said. “The HBCUs are not funded, and they are not looked at as viable candidates of doing this work, even though they are the individuals that are toiling that land and creating those pathways that many individuals that have funding are now working on.

“It hurts to know that you’re doing the work and you’re laying the pathway and you’re providing these sorts of things,” she continued, “and not receiving the funding that individuals have in those institutions that are receiving the funding, and working in a space that you all share, but not sharing the resources, or even the expertise that was created through the HBCUs and faculty and students.”

Bowie State, for instance, got its program started by participating in the Department of Education’s revived Second Chance Pell Grant Experiment program, which former President Barack Obama’s administration launched in 2015 to provide financial aid to incarcerated people beginning or resuming postsecondary education. The program was expanded in 2022, and Bowie State was one of just a few HBCUs accepted for participation. Its first cohort of inmate students entered in the spring 2023 semester.

According to the Department of Education, the number of Second Chance Pell Grant recipients grew from 6,657 in 2018 to 11,287 in 2022, the last year for which statistics are available and before the criteria for receiving grants were expanded for the 2022-23 academic year. Recipients through HBCUs were more erratic during that time, however, starting with 604 in 2018, 831 in 2019, falling during the coronavirus pandemic (2020-2021) and increasing to 546 in 2022.

Pell Grants still cover only tuition and fees for incarcerated students, so Bowie State and other participating HBCUs have to do major fundraising for books, supplies and other expenses. They also need commitment from their university administrations and faculty willing to take the time and potentially endure the financial sacrifice to teach the classes. 

Nevertheless, Bowie aimed high in its vision of what it could contribute to the inmates’ lives and futures.

“They’re not just random classes that the folks are taking for a certificate of completion – they’re earning their bachelor’s degree,” Jackson said. “Everything that our students on campus have to go through in order to earn a degree in sociology, they have to do the same thing.”

In 2021, Lane began offering degree-granting programs through the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, which partners with the state Department of Correction and the state Board of Regents to provide education, expedite release and transition and reduce recidivism. As executive director Laura Ferguson Mimms put it, the program “disrupts systems of harm.”

“At its heart, this is a liberation movement for us,” Mimms said. “The lever is education, but it is very definitely a liberation movement.”

As the directors of the program at Bowie lauded its administrators for supporting it as an integral part of the school and its mission, Mimms did the same for Lane when its program needed financial help, even with the Second Chance Pell Grant funding.

“They adjusted the cost of tuition to where Pell would cover all of the student costs, and any student that applied that didn’t qualify for Pell, Lane covered the cost of that student,” she said. “So many times when we look at the cost of attendance, parts of that cost incarcerated students don’t benefit from – student services, all of these other parts of the education that our students behind the wall don’t get.”

The Higher Education in Prisons Program at Morehouse, through the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership, is not degree-granting, but it has been expanded greatly in recent years, including this academic year, when it advanced from teaching courses in the regional and state correctional systems to teaching in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The program provides faculty and students to teach and assist in the facilities.

The motivation for participants on both sides is often clear to them all, said Justin McClinton, the program’s faculty leader, a professor of leadership studies and a Morehouse alum.

Nathaniel Norment (left), an English professor at Morehouse College, speaks with a Higher Education in Prisons Program student (right) after class inside the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership

“I mean, it’s a jarring experience you have – the jailers working in the federal penitentiary that are HBCU graduates, to bring in me as a professor who’s an HBCU graduate, to teach incarcerated men that are also HBCU graduates,” McClinton said. “All three of us are here, part of this same kind of network but in very different roles. And it’s playing out in this really interesting way. It can be powerful oftentimes.”

The history of Morehouse and the mission of HBCUs have driven participation by teachers and students, support by the administration and the willingness of the prisons themselves to participate.

“Morehouse carries social cachet and capital, and it wants to use that wisely,” said Kipton Jensen, the program’s coordinator. “And as you know, as MLK’s [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] alma mater, it has a kind of moral authority when it comes to issues of social justice and leadership.’’

However, even a school with the prestige of Morehouse wrestles with financial issues, he said.

“Faculty are overworked and stretched thin, so it really takes a labor of love for them to teach in addition to their other classes, at least at colleges where teaching on the inside does not count toward their teaching load on the outside,” Jensen said. “A lot of that is volunteer work.”

The 2023-2024 cohort of student ambassadors for Morehouse College’s Higher Education in Prisons Program.

Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership

Besides facilitating Muhammad’s Policing Inside Out class and her other work with incarcerated students and their families, Howard also works with two inmate education programs operated by Howard University College of Medicine professor Stanley Andrisse, From Prison Cells to PhD and Bridges to Baccalaureate. Both programs create paths to enrollment at Howard, and Andrisse, who earned his master’s and doctorate after his release from prison in Missouri after incarceration on drug charges, is relentless in expanding both. But, he said, money is not the only thing getting in the way, there or at other universities.

“HBCUs have actually been slow to jump on and be able to get on this bandwagon or this new trend,” Andrisse said, noting several prominent predominantly white institutions operate such programs but do not provide degrees to their institutions, and HBCUs often take the same approach.

“Although there’s been a growing movement in this field, the prestigious institutions of higher education have been slow to put their name on it,” Andrisse said. “And similarly, HBCUs have been slow to move in this direction because of the connection of incarceration to Black individuals. With the elite institutions, they’re not putting their name on it, because they’re really thinking is this going to affect our bottom line.”

It creates a disturbing catch-22 for HBCUs, he added.

“HBCUs were founded to help support formerly enslaved individuals, and so it only makes sense that we should be one of the top people that are helping to educate formerly incarcerated people, as incarceration is very well documented as this extension of slavery from Jim Crow to what [author] Michelle Alexander deems The New Jim Crow,” Andrisse said. “It would only make sense HBCUs should be one of the top people in this space, but they’re not.”

Andrisse and Muhammad both have nudged Howard to expand what it does for incarcerated students. Muhammad expresses gratitude and understanding for how steep a climb it is for such programs to achieve widespread growth.

“You know at HBCUs, we don’t fight just one issue. We can’t put all of our eggs in kind of one basket. … That’s just being realistic,” Muhammad said. “It’s going to take a team, and in order to bring on the team, you’re going to need the resources at the end of the day.”

In Tennessee, Mimms continues to encourage the two largest HBCUs in the state, Tennessee State University and her alma mater Fisk University, to get involved in her initiative. And Bowie State’s program operators send up flares to their fellow Maryland HBCUs, Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Jackson doesn’t want to stop at the state’s borders. A full degree program, identical in workload to every other Bowie State undergraduate, is a vision all HBCUs should and can have, he said.

“We want to lead the charge to create this prison-to-HBCU pipeline. So, what does that mean?” he said. “We want to empower other HBCUs to do this work as well, to offer bachelor’s degree programs. We don’t want to be just the only one. We want to be the one that is creating a foundation of success for other HBCUs as well.”

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture. He also is the author of "It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism," published in 2022.