Amy McNamara: Paving the Way for Women in Prison Education

Amy McNamara in front of a bookshelf.

Long after most people have fallen asleep, Amy McNamara stays up studying. It’s a routine she developed as an avid writer who needed to find quiet moments in prison to get her ideas down on paper. Now, she’s using some of that time to stay on top of her Georgetown University schoolwork as she strives to earn her bachelor’s degree.

McNamara was one of the first women to be accepted into Georgetown’s Bachelor of Liberal Arts program at the Patuxent Institution, a prison in Jessup, Md. 

When she first saw the program advertised on an informational flier, “a light went off,” McNamara said.

She had been working as a clerk in the education department at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and had already taken many college classes herself on the outside – but had been stopped short of earning a degree.

“I was helping other people finish their education, but I was stagnating,” she said. 

McNamara decided then that she would allow herself the same encouragement she had been giving to so many other women. But despite her educational background and love of learning, she still doubted that she would be admitted into the highly selective program, which has an overall acceptance rate of less than 10 percent.

“I was shocked when I was accepted,” she said. “Knowing that I was one of the first ones picked made me want to see it through and open the door for other women who will come after me.” 

McNamara joined the program in the fall of 2022 with the second cohort – the first to accept students from both men’s and women’s prison facilities in Maryland. She was nervous at first and worried that she would be judged for still being a student at 47 years old. But she said she quickly felt the acceptance of her classmates and professors as she took classes in philosophy, writing, and theology. 

“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “To hear professor after professor say they enjoy coming here to teach, it means so much.” 

“We’re What Keeps Us Out”

McNamara said that over time, a cycle of addiction and incarceration made her lose hope – and some of herself. 

“I could have kept that attitude. But when I got accepted to Georgetown, it gave me an open door,” she said. “I still have that urge to help people.”

McNamara expects to return home in early 2024 and plans to complete her degree as a free woman. She also has her mind set on a career as a paralegal and is interested in the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program at the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI).

Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative staff are among those helping her prepare to take those next steps upon her reentry.

“I will always have the help of the PJI members,” she said. “I feel like I have a field map to avoid all the pitfalls and be where I want to be.”

But even with so much to look forward to in her own life, she also is committed to nurturing her desire to help others. She specifically wants to give back to other individuals who have experienced incarceration. 

McNamara said that college education programs in prison are one way that incarcerated people can break the cycles that trap them inside the system. 

“When you have programs like this, it’s helping all of those people that have the opportunity to take the courses inside to not come back,” she said. “We’re not what got us here. We’re what keeps us out. Georgetown is one of those things that is going to keep us out.”

Prison Scholars