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Opportunity For All: College’s Presence At County Jail Creates Hope For Inmates

A community college should be committed to serving all members of that community. By providing educational opportunities and scholarships to inmates in Montgomery County’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (MCDOCR) centers, Montgomery College is reaching out to some of the most vulnerable learners in the community, the ones who are often the most easily overlooked.

“People always talk about the ‘school to prison pipeline.’ Well, I want to create a ‘jail to college pipeline,’” says Nancy Newton, special programs director of MC’s Workforce Development & Continuing Education. Newton, who runs all of MC’s adult education programs at Montgomery County’s correctional facility and the pre-release center, wants to dispel many of the misconceptions the general population has about people in jail. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that 65 percent have not been sentenced, and about 80 percent will return to the community,” says Newton. “Who do you want returning?”

For Newton and her team of MC instructors and staff, there is real joy in working with this population. James “Britt” Boice, who teaches digital literacy and GED courses at the pre-release center, calls his time in the classroom there a “breath of fresh air.” As a 30-something male who grew up in Montgomery County, Boice doesn’t find it hard to relate to his students: men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who live in Montgomery County.

“I went to school a mile away from here,” says Boice. “If [my students] had been in high school with me, they could have been my friends.”

Of course, there are challenges. With residents constantly coming and going through the pre-release center, “each class is the first day of class for someone.” Boice is constantly altering his curriculum and tailoring his instruction (usually on the spot) to meet individual students’ needs. But these are welcome challenges.

People always talk about the ‘school to prison pipeline.’ Well, I want to create a ‘jail to college pipeline’.

“I get to come in here and help people all day—and then tomorrow, I get to come back and do it all again,” says Boice. “When you get your class into a flow, and people are getting their GEDs, other students see that and are inspired to work hard.”

Inspiration is key, and yet it can come and go for inmates who are spending 23 hours a day behind cinderblock walls. This is why Newton felt it was essential to bring the spirit of MC to the facility in a very real and visual way. Last year, she approached Rob Green, former director of MCDOCR, and told him she wanted to “brand the College [MC signage, brochures] in the jail.”

“I want our students to feel like they’re part of the College while they are incarcerated,” says Newton. And now they do, every time they walk down the halls and see the huge signs with the MC logos. “The MC Foundation was instrumental in doing that for us,” she says.

The Montgomery College Foundation not only provided the MC branding, it also provides $1,500 scholarships to learners who complete their GED and want to continue their education at MC, post-release. Since 2017, 42 inmates have successfully completed their GEDs. This might seem like a relatively small number when compared to the 900-plus residents who circulate in and out of the correctional facilities each year, but to Dawn Drew, gift coordinator for MC’s division of Advancement and Community Engagement, it is so much more than a number: It’s a symbol of hope.

“It’s like planting a seed,” Drew says. “That there’s a better way. We’re providing a service: an education to people who might otherwise not receive it. If they return to the community … they know they have a place to go.”

Newton shares that view. She herself has been inspired by her experiences with the program to pursue a doctoral degree in entrepreneurial leadership in education with a focus on corrections education.

“When you think about what the students had before and what we are able to offer them now … it is mighty,” said Newton. “We’re small, but mighty.”

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