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December 13, 2013

Colleges brings liberal arts education into prisons

The Goucher College professor handed out an essay question one fall evening to an unusual group of political science students, an assignment meant to draw out their views on the health of American democracy in its third century.

"There are no right or wrong answers here," Eric Singer told them. They were to cite documents dating to the Constitution and the Federalist Papers to make their arguments. One student asked whether he could reference philosophers from ancient Greece and the Enlightenment.

"If you want to throw in a little Aristotle and John Locke, I'd be most pleased to read it," Singer replied. When class wrapped up, he left for a rainy drive home. His six students had no choice but to stay.

The men would eat, study, sleep, wake up and work, as they must, inside a prison complex surrounded by high fences and coils of barbed wire. Their campus is the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup. No ivory towers here. Just guard towers.

The class from the private college in the suburbs north of Baltimore is part of a movement to bring liberal arts education to a sector of society where it is scarce.

Goucher is among relatively few selective colleges that offer courses for credit inside prisons. Others include Bard College, Wesleyan University and Cornell University. Advocates say the efforts have multiple payoffs: heightened awareness within prisons of the importance of education; invaluable opportunities for faculty and others at the colleges to dispel stereotypes about teaching and learning; and lower recidivism rates for students after they are released.

"All of us need to stop thinking about education of incarcerated people as some sort of luxury that they don't deserve," said Cornell President David Skorton, whose university teaches New York prisoners in partnership with a community college. "It's in their interest, but it's also in society's interest."

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