For James Ruffin III, going to college classes was an “escape.”
It took him out of his housing unit at Jessup Correctional Institution, away from whatever “nonsense” might be going on that day, to the sanctuary of a classroom.
And the University of Baltimore classes themselves, he found, began to change the way he looked at life. He wanted to take them all.
“They said, ‘Well, we can only give you three this semester,’” Ruffin recalled. “The first time they let us take four, I took four.”
When he was released from prison in November of 2019, where he was serving time for drug distribution charges, Ruffin continued his courses, this time on campus while working at a series of full time jobs. He currently works in logistics at an area warehouse.
And last week, five years after taking his first college class ever while still behind bars, Ruffin graduated magna cum laude with the honors cords to prove it — becoming the first University of Baltimore student to earn a Bachelor’s degree after starting school while incarcerated through the university’s Second Chance College Program. His degree is in Human Services Administration.
“I’m not the ‘woo-hoo, click your heels’ type,” Ruffin said prior to his commencement ceremony. “My situations have been so bleak for so long, it’s kind of hard to just turn that ‘jump up and down’ switch back on. But I’m excited for it. I’m looking forward to it.”
Walking across the Lyric Opera House stage in his cap and gown, Ruffin raised his arms and waved to cheering classmates.
The university, which was selected as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Sites Initiative, began offering college courses in 2016 to students incarcerated at Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison for men.
Since its inception, it has served 105 students, issuing more than 180 college credits.
Ruffin’s graduation, said Andrea Cantora, director of the program, is symbolic of the work the program’s students have put in — and has already motivated others to continue their own schoolwork. Staff have heard from students interested in reenrolling or increasing their course load after learning of their former classmate’s achievement.
And, while Ruffin is the first to graduate, others aren’t far behind, Cantora said. She predicted a second student is about two semesters away, with others nearing credit requirements on a part-time basis.
A group of current students still inside the Jessup facility made Ruffin a congratulatory card that elicited a few chuckles from him when he received it in a surprise gathering the week before graduation.
“There’s a whole group of guys who really want to be here, so we are representing them,” Cantora told Ruffin as she presented him with the notes near the University of Baltimore. “You are their inspiration.”
His graduation was also cheered by the acting executive director of Maryland’s other current degree program for incarcerated students, the Goucher Prison Education Partnership through Goucher College, which offers courses at two other prisons in Jessup.
Eliza Cornejo, who leads the Goucher program that has seen 16 graduates since it began in 2012, said the more students see their peers graduating, the more they see it’s a tangible goal. It’s also easier to help them to “double down and get through their classes and know they’re working toward something real.”
Two additional schools in the state — Anne Arundel and Wor-Wic Community Colleges — paused their prison credit courses due to the pandemic, spokespeople said, but hope to resume certificate programs.
Others in Maryland, including the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, hope to begin offering similar programs to incarcerated students soon. A program out of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. will launch in January for students at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
They are part of a wave of educators supporting college-in-prison programs, according to Jessica Neptune from the Bard Prison Initiative, a college-in-prison program connected to Bard College in New York, who said Bard has seen “major growth” in inquiries from would-be programs across the country.
“The political landscape has shifted profoundly over the last 20 years as college-in-prison went from being caught in the crosshairs of tough on crime to enjoying perhaps uniquely bipartisan support in an era where that kind of consensus is nearly unheard of,” Neptune, BPI’s director of national engagement, said in an email.
Both Goucher and University of Baltimore were part of the 2016 Department of Education pilot that doled out federal financial aid for incarcerated students for the first time since it was banned federally in 1994 crime legislation.
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Lawmakers have since lifted the ban on Pell Grants for people in prison and the Second Chance Pell program was expanded to allow for additional colleges and universities.
A recently released study of the Bard Prison Initiative found students who participated were 38.6% less likely to reoffend than their peers. The more classes the students took, the less likely they were to commit new crimes that would send them back to prison, the study found. For every 12 college credits, rates dropped by 1.3%.
A separate study from 2013 by the Rand Corp. found those who participated in education programs were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years.
Ruffin will put his new University of Baltimore degree in Human Services Administration toward his goal of opening a nonprofit transitional living house to help people after they’re released from prison.
The main reason he was able to continue school when released without taking a break, he said, was because of the strong support system he had on the outside.
“Guys that come home and they don’t have nobody, don’t have nothing ... if they can’t get a job, they’re gonna go back to whatever they were doing that incarcerated ‘em,” Ruffin said.
“If I can provide housing, provide transportation to a job, provide clothing, that type of stuff, I think that I can help out with the recidivism rate (and) give guys a chance.”