Six years ago, two prison cellmates became, to their surprise, college roommates. Donte Small was doing time at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup for assault with a handgun. Sanford Barber was in for involuntary manslaughter. Both were constantly looking to improve themselves.
One day, Barber saw a flier advertising college courses. He signed them both up. They interviewed and wrote letters. Small wondered: “Could I make it in college? Is this possible? Is this really a thing?”
They were accepted in Goucher College’s inaugural classes at Jessup in 2012. The two men proofed each other’s papers, talked about assignments and took turns at an improvised desk in the cell with a toilet seat as a chair.
They sought, Barber said, “to motivate each other, uplift each other.” In one class they studied the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and involuntary servitude, and pondered the exception in it that permitted incarceration for a criminal conviction. “Blew my mind when I read it,” Small said.
Now out of prison, the two reunited this past week on the Goucher campus north of Baltimore to celebrate Small’s prison-to-college story: graduation from the liberal arts school with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
Small, 29, released in 2014, has finished his schoolwork except for a short trip next month to fulfill a study-abroad requirement. He said he wants to “push, challenge and change the narrative about individuals with a criminal past.”
Barber, 30, who was released last year, said the college courses changed his life, too. “It was definitely a steppingstone.” He took his Goucher credits to Pasco-Hernando State College in Florida and plans to earn an associate degree in information technology and then transfer to the University of South Florida. He flew to Baltimore last week to congratulate Small.
Few are able to do it
The path Small followed, starting with a college behind bars and finishing on its main campus, is not unprecedented. But experts say very few are able to do it.
“It’s tragically rare in the United States,” said Max Kenner, executive director of a prison education initiative at Bard College in New York.
In 1994, Congress approved a ban on Pell Grant funding for higher education in prison, leading many programs to shrink or shut down. But in recent years, inmates have secured more opportunities to earn college credit.
Goucher started offering courses for credit to men and women at two state prisons in Jessup six years ago, using private money and joining a small group of four-year schools with similar efforts.
Momentum for these initiatives grew in 2016 with the launch of a federal experiment supporting prison education at dozens of colleges through Pell Grants.
Advocates hope results from the Second Chance Pell program will spur Congress to repeal the 1994 ban. Their arguments are humanitarian, social and fiscal: Education substantially lowers the probability that ex-convicts will return to crime.
Goucher cut no slack for Small and Barber, who were under tighter restrictions than other freshmen: no internet, no cellphones and a controlled daily routine behind razor wire. But classes were small and discussions intense.
Next month, Small and other students will travel for three weeks to the Caribbean island of Curacao to wrap up his Goucher work.
He also wants to provide guidance to a younger brother who’s nearing the end of high school: “That’s my next task, to get him college-ready.”