Theresa Adams learned in psychology class that her impulsive nature likely landed her in prison. She took the class at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, where she also tackled calculus, studied Spanish and recited Shakespeare while serving seven years.
"I could have completed a degree during that time," the 58-year-old former inmate says.
Inmates will now have that chance. Goucher College will soon start offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in American studies at the Jessup prison facilities for men and women, officials announced Thursday. The liberal arts college in Towson will be Maryland's only school to offer a bachelor's degree wholly within prison.
"Goucher's willingness to grant the bachelor's degree puts them in the first tier of leadership in this issue of taking education in prison seriously," said Max Kenner, who founded the prison education program at Bard College in New York.
"Too many universities recognize the problems we face in criminal justice and the crisis of mass incarceration but hesitate to fully commit to do something meaningful," he said.
Goucher joins 15 to 20 colleges across America offering bachelor's degrees behind bars, Kenner said.
The program comes as a federal program is expanding inmates' access to college. The U.S. Department of Education started an experimental program this year to restore student aid for prisoners.
The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program marks the first time inmates can apply for federal student aid since a 1994 crime bill banned prisoners from the benefit. The ban shut down prison college programs across the country, Kenner said.
"You had lots, then you had nothing — an overnight transformation of what it meant to be in prison in the United States," he said.
A small number of colleges continued sending professors into prisons but relied heavily on donors to pay for books, staff and other expenses.
The Obama administration's pilot program is slated to last at least three years with an annual budget of $30 million, according to the Department of Education. The money comes from the same fund that provides Pell Grants to conventional students. The $30 million represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of money for Pell Grants in 2016, according to federal officials.
The administration's unilateral action creating and funding the pilot program — it didn't require approval from Congress — has rankled Republicans who say it stifles important debate on prison reform.
Three other Maryland schools were chosen to participate in the first year — the University of Baltimore, and Anne Arundel and Wor-Wic community colleges.
Joshua Miller, a professor at the University of Baltimore, began teaching a for-credit course on writing and study skills at the men's prison at Jessup this fall. The university had offered prisoners noncredit courses in the past. Next year, it will follow Goucher and seek permission to grant a bachelor's degree at the Jessup facility, Miller said.
"Our students are some of the best I've ever taught," he said. "These are guys that are just sponges for knowledge."
Goucher officials estimate the grants inmates receive will represent 10 percent to 20 percent of the program budget of about $600,000 this fiscal year. But the courses will continue even if the pilot program ends, said Amy Roza, director of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership. She said she would have to seek other funding sources without the federal aid.
"Second Chance Pell has changed the conversation, and that's a great thing," she said.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with about 2.2 million people in its jails and prisons, according to the Department of Education. Maryland has about 21,000 inmates in its prisons.
Advocates of prison education often refer to a 2013 study by the Rand Corp. that found inmates who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. The study also determined that every $1 spent on prison education saves $4 to $5 on the costs of re-incarceration within the three years.
To cover the cost of Goucher's program, the college must raise about $6,000 per prisoner per year from private sources. Classes are held in the evenings after prisoners complete their work duties.
The Goucher Prison Education Partnership program began four years ago with 15 prisoners taking courses for credit, but with no chance to earn a degree behind bars. About 100 inmates currently participate and most take four classes a year. More than 600 have written letters for admission since 2012. The waiting list has 130 names.
"We don't advertise because we get so many students just writing to us," Roza said. "We can't keep up with that demand. … The main bottleneck is funding."
Prisoners must interview for admission. They may earn a high school GED in prison and take college preparatory courses under other prison education programs.
Adams, the former inmate, said her path to prison began as a teenager after she ran away from home in Buffalo, N.Y., and started stealing to get by. She was sent to prison on burglary charges.
She said she saw getting an education as an opportunity to write a new narrative for her life.
"I tried to learn to educate myself so I could make better decisions and not do things impulsively," Adams said.
She began taking courses in sociology, statistics, public speaking and more. She said she began to understand prison life through the lens of sociology:
"You accept abuse or mistreatment because you see somebody else accepting it," she said.
She earned A's in statistics, psychology and theater. ("Spanish was my one Achilles' heel," she said.)
Adams was released from Jessup in 2014.
She's now enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. She said she hopes to transfer to a four-year university and study business.
"Being in school helped me make better decisions and see the big picture," she said.
Goucher has no plans yet to expand the degree program beyond American studies, Roza said. For now, she's trying to get permission to someday bring caps and gowns into the prison.