Towson University’s Fair Chance Higher Education Initiative, a BTU investment in Towson University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice is part of a growing national movement to increase higher education access for those directly impacted by the criminal justice system (i.e., incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people).

Background and history

Since 2014, TU faculty have been teaching in local jails using the Inside-Out Prison Exchange model. This model joins incarcerated and main campus students as co-learners in college classes held inside jail. Inside students remark on how this model counters the dehumanization of carceral settings and piques their interest in higher education. It also enhances outside students’ awareness of how the criminal justice system exacerbates inequalities and fosters their commitment to work for social justice. Ten TU faculty have participated in the week-long intensive Inside-Out training that prepares them for the unique pedagogical and emotional challenges of teaching in prison. Five TU faculty have taught 360 students (180 incarcerated and 180 main campus students over 12 courses) inside the Baltimore County Detention Center and 60 students (30 incarcerated and 30 main campus over three courses) inside the Harford County Detention Center.

Through the vision of Associate Professor Dr. Elyshia Aseltine, TU’s Fair Chance Higher Education Initiative was born of a desire to deepen and enhance the Inside-Out work by creating the necessary support system for justice-impacted people to pursue higher education. Much of the work on campus over the last several years has been on increasing awareness of the challenges of reentry, identifying best practices on college campuses, creating a handbook for potential students and their advisors, and building a campus-wide network. Currently, there are sixty members of the network representing every division on campus (i.e., university leadership, academic affairs, all student affairs offices, human resources, campus police and general counsel).

Fair Chance efforts have been supported by a community fellowship from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, two investments from BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore, one grant from the TU Foundation, and one grant from Campus Compact Mid Atlantic.

Political changes in the higher education and incarceration landscape

Two recent changes in state and federal law provide a unique opportunity to increase the access of justice-impacted people to higher education:

  • In 2018, the Maryland legislature passed “ban the box” legislation, which prohibits public colleges from asking questions about criminal history on admissions applications.
  • In December 2020, Congress lifted the long-standing ban on issuing Pell grants to incarcerated students. In 2023, colleges will be able to access federal financial aid to support the offering of credit-bearing courses to incarcerated students.

Moving this work forward through the pandemic

Working through bureaucratic barriers is a constant challenge for this initiative and the pandemic created new obstacles and new support needs for this population. All of the spring 2020 education and outreach activities were postponed due to the pandemic, including in person re-entry simulations and a guest speaker series—however, work to support FCHE steadily moved forward. Dr. Aseltine’s work was recognized at the 2020 BTU Partnership Awards event. During the event speakers demonstrate and highlight the impact of this program on Towson University’s current students, alumni and justice-impacted students.

Funding from the 2020 Cares Act provided relief to incarcerated people and their families.

In fall of 2020, under the Cares Act, justice-impacted individuals across the U.S.A. have access to stimulus payments. This funding relief provides much needed support to persons incarcerated and to their families.

Dr. Aseltine further discusses efforts that have been undertaken to support justice impacted individuals.

How did you support this work?

A tech-savvy volunteer was able to create a program to pull all the names and addresses of those incarcerated in Maryland’s prisons from the “Maryland Inmate Locator” website. We utilized existing funding from a TU Foundation grant to pay for printing and postage. We mailed information on accessing relief funds while incarcerated to every person incarcerated in a Baltimore City detention center and to a random sample of 150 people incarcerated in other Maryland prisons.

Those who were willing shared with us how important the relief funds were to them and their families:

“I assure you this money will be a blessing and used [to] buy books and stamps to continue doing what has become my passion—writing books and music. I lost my mother 06/05/2020 and she cannot help me. I have no way to provide for myself for everything cost[s] in jail: soap, shorts, socks, stamps. With this money I will be able to send my son a gift even if it’s just a book for Christmas. The stimulus relief fund will be a blessing I will never forget. It will boost my mental health because my family will not have to worry about me for a while. The family that’s been helping me out have been money tight due to COVID-19 and I been down like them. Again it would be a blessing to receive these funds and a humongous weight will be lifted off my shoulders.”

—Incarcerated Maryland inmate

“That money can help with a few Christmas gifts for my children and sustain me momentarily providing hygiene items and food. I can’t speak for every person under stimulus conditions, but it’s a start to providing law books, potential legal aid or even help with work clothes upon release.”

—Incarcerated Maryland inmate

“I will be able to send money home to help my mother who is currently taking care of my daughter along with my girlfriend who is a mother of four and doing it all on their own along with trying to make sure I’m taken care of as well. I was given a ten-year sentence and I’m currently trying to get into a drug rehabilitation program, but due to the virus everything is currently shut down. This will also give me a chance to give back to my loved ones and help provide for my daughter as well as my step kids. Our loved ones are incarcerated along with us as inmates in so many ways emotionally and physically. They are not able to be with us for holidays and they have to maintain the home front as well trying to take of us. They have bills, kids and obligations as well. So again I want to thank you very much for the chance to be able to give back to my loved ones and finish my education as well.”

—Incarcerated Maryland inmate

Actively engaging TU leadership has been crucial to the progress made this past year. Dr. Aseltine discusses the accomplishment underway and the collaborative approach TU is taking to continue TU’s momentum for the public good.

Can you describe TU accomplishments and some of the next steps being undertaken?

We are pleased to share that Dr. Melanie Perrault, provost and executive vice president for academic and student affairs, has agreed to create a standing committee within the Provost’s Office dedicated to supporting the Fair Chance Higher Education Initiative and to sett up a prison-based, credit-bearing higher education program in a Maryland prison. This new committee will be instrumental in moving this important work forward. We will be announcing the committee to the wider campus community during an online event on March 30, 1–2:30 p.m.: “Supporting Justice-Impacted People in Higher Education.” To register for the event. The committee is planned to begin working in fall of 2021.

What is your vision for the Fair Chance Higher Education Initiative?

Ultimately, we seek to create a campus designed to support justice-impacted individuals in their pursuit of higher education. This means having staff whose day-to-day work is focused on supporting this population, creating university and departmental policies that remove barriers to their success, and fostering a campus climate that welcomes them and encourages them in reaching their full potential.

How can TU students, faculty and staff get involved?

As the program develops, there will be lots of opportunities for faculty, staff and students to support the work. This includes opportunities for supporting our eventual prison-based higher education program (e.g., instruction, tutoring, etc.) and for supporting justice-impacted students on campus (i.e., serving as “navigators”, donating supplies, etc.)

For more information, contact FairChance@towson.edu.