See more of the story

Four men long accustomed to the daily routines of incarceration observed a springtime ritual that is rare for the inside of a Maryland prison. First they donned black robes adorned with the Goucher College insignia and hoods of blue and gold. Then came the academic caps. There were speeches, a few tears, whoops from the audience, handshakes and photographic poses with the college president.

They moved their gold tassels from right to left on the mortarboard. They were proclaimed graduates with bachelor's degrees in American studies.

James Jackson, one of the four, savored his first commencement. "It makes me nervous," the 57-year-old confessed beforehand. "I also feel very proud about it. It took a little over eight years to get accomplished."

Jackson, who is serving a life term for murder, had graduated cum laude — with distinction — in 2021 through Goucher's program inside prisons, but the commencement was delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Among his favorite classes: African American history, political science and a sociology seminar on masculinity.

The rituals at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup were believed to be the first commencement to confer bachelor's degrees inside a Maryland prison in at least 25 years. They also reflect a major pivot toward wider access to college in prisons across the country.

In years to come, there is likely to be a lot more pomp and circumstance in fortified compounds guarded by razor wire. Professors and provosts and college presidents, with new backing from federal financial aid, are reaching into prisons to connect with inmates who are hungry to learn.

Prison officials are welcoming colleges. "Education grows peace," said Robert L. Green, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, who spoke at the commencement. "I'm a fan of education and opportunities to learn and grow. We have all the data. We know it works."

Higher education all but vanished from many prisons after enactment of a 1994 law that barred inmates from receiving federal Pell grants for college studies.

Proponents of the ban said it would ensure that financial aid was available for the most deserving students. Critics said it deprived prisoners of a powerful tool to improve their lives and prepare them to contribute to society when freed. Research shows that those who pursue education while incarcerated are less likely to commit crimes after they are released.

Congress voted to repeal the ban in late 2020, and Pell grants are scheduled to be widely available for incarcerated students starting in the fall 2023 term. The grants are the primary federal source of need-based financial aid. Eligible students can receive up to $6,895 in the coming school year.

Even before the repeal, colleges in recent years had begun to reestablish and expand their presence in state and federal prisons through funding from private sources and a limited federal experiment known as Second Chance Pell.

From 2016 to 2021, according to a report from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice — which opposes mass incarceration — the experiment provided funding to help more than 28,000 inmates take college courses behind bars. One hundred thirty colleges and universities, including Goucher, participated in Second Chance Pell during that time. The Education Department said another 73 are joining this year. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona — like his Trump administration predecessor, Betsy DeVos — has promoted the experiment.

The expansion of college opportunity within prisons poses another question: How to celebrate the growing number of prisoners who complete degree programs? The Vera Institute found that at least 754 Pell recipients had earned bachelor's degrees inside prisons from 2016 to 2021, and more than 8,000 others earned certificates or associate's degrees.

Margaret diZerega of the Vera Institute said she attended a Rutgers University commencement inside a New Jersey prison a few years ago. It was deeply emotional, she said, to see graduates stand, turn and face their cheering families. "That's when we all cried," she said.

This year, Georgetown University began a bachelor's degree program for 25 students in a Maryland prison called Patuxent Institution. With support from federal Pell grants, it is expected to grow to 125 students within five years. When the inaugural class graduates in spring 2026, the Jesuit university wants a full-dress commencement within the prison.

"We expect to have every piece of pomp and circumstance possible," said Marc M. Howard, a professor of government and law who directs the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative.

In the outside world, Howard said, some view graduation as an unexciting chore or formality. Not so for those behind bars. "On the inside, it's greatly appreciated," he said. "They've overcome unbelievably difficult odds to get to that point."

The public University of Baltimore, another participant in the Second Chance experiment, offers classes inside the Jessup prison, which neighbors the facility where Goucher teaches. In December, a student who began there and later was released graduated with others at a university commencement in Baltimore.

Goucher has long been a leader in prison education. The private liberal arts college, with about 2,000 students on its Baltimore County campus, has offered undergraduate courses for men and women in Maryland prisons since January 2012.

The college teaches about 130 students a year in its prison program. Many start with noncredit courses to improve their writing and math skills, then move to full-credit offerings. This year's catalog included courses in Shakespeare, Spanish, religion, music theory, politics and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

The program costs about $1.4 million a year, according to executive director Eliza Cornejo. Pell grants cover 20 to 25% of the expense, she said, and private grants and donations the rest. Faculty from schools such as Johns Hopkins University, Howard Community College and Georgetown have taught in the program. For now, the only major offered is the interdisciplinary program in American studies.

Faculty and students face significant constraints inside the prisons. No cellphones are allowed, officials say, and students are not given access to the Internet for e-mail or research. Computers are available for writing assignments, although access to them has been limited at times during the pandemic.

"I wrote a lot of papers by hand," said Nyol Robinson, 45, who finished his degree this spring and also earned the cum laude designation. Robinson, serving a term for child sexual abuse and second-degree rape, said he expects to be released in about a year. He maintains his innocence. The commencement, he said, "gives hope to people that don't really know that something good can come of whatever situation you come to in life."

Often, Goucher's classes are brought back to the fundamentals of teaching and learning. "It's just you and your students and a text and the blackboard," said Jamie Mullaney, an associate provost at Goucher and professor of sociology who has taught in prisons. She said the experience was profound. "When you start from a place where everybody wants to be in the classroom and realizes what an opportunity this is, that's a great starting point," Mullaney said.

She recalled teaching a seminar on masculinity one year that inspired some of her male students to set up a "Men's Rap" workshop on the subject for inmates who were not in the Goucher program. Mullaney marveled at how those involved were "throwing around terms like 'toxic masculinity' and 'hegemonic masculinity.' Pretty cool to watch."

James Scott, 62, another graduate, said Mullaney's class left a deep impression on him. Scott, imprisoned for murder since 1983, said he is expecting to secure release on parole by next year. Growing up, he said, the furthest he achieved in education was sixth grade. He obtained a GED high school equivalency diploma while incarcerated in the 1980s.

When he leaves prison, he hopes to work in education on issues related to masculinity and emotional intelligence. Inside, he tutors and takes notes for students who are hearing-impaired. And he reads. "Library is like a second home to me," he said.

Walter L. McCoy Jr., 45, who also graduated, said he hopes to study computer science, perhaps for a master's degree, when released. McCoy, serving a term for second-degree attempted murder, said he expects to be out in 2025. Proud to have finished his bachelor's in six years, McCoy praised psychology classes and an English professor who "taught us how to have our own voice." In a literature class last year, he wrote poems that were included in his mother's obituary.

Some of the graduates had relatives in the audience — a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a son. Jackson said his family was in Georgia and unable to attend. He teared up as he told the audience that a longtime leader of the Goucher program, Amy Roza, had assured him she would be his family on this day. The audience clapped and cheered. "It's not like I'm alone," he said.