In Unique Course, Georgetown Students and Prison Scholars Learn Together

The fall 2021 Prisons and Punishment class.

Every Tuesday over the fall semester, a group of 15 Georgetown students took an unusual route to their afternoon class: Instead of walking across campus or logging on to Zoom, they hopped on the Metro and headed for the D.C. Jail. There, after passing through a security and COVID-19 screening, they found their seats and waited for their incarcerated classmates to be escorted in. 

The course is called Prisons and Punishment, and it is one of several unique Georgetown courses taught by Marc Howard that bring together undergraduates and incarcerated students. As a group, these students explore topics of mass incarceration, the criminal legal system, social justice, and racial inequality in the U.S. 

Georgetown senior Thais Borges says she gained a new understanding of the criminal justice system through the openness and honesty of her incarcerated classmates.

“Hearing their experiences directly, you feel you understand more about what you’re reading and you get that personal connection, because you’re seeing them in person and you’re sharing that space with them,” she says. “There’s so much that you can learn, but also relearn in a new way that makes you more aware.” 

Marc Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, says that’s one of the goals of the course: to encourage all of the students to challenge their perceptions and learn from one another.

“It’s one thing to read about the causes and effects of mass incarceration. It’s another thing entirely to look through the lens of a classmate whose own life, family, and community have been shaped by it,” Howard says.  

Despite the students’ differences, Borges says, the lines between the “inside” and “outside” students fade away over the hours they spend together in class.

“I just see them as students, because we’re really engaged in the conversation,” Borges says. “You forget you’re taking a class at the D.C. Jail until you’re in the elevator, and then you remember where you are.”

A Lasting Impact

The class is part of the Prison Scholars Program at the D.C. Jail, which offers credit-bearing Georgetown courses to incarcerated students. In Prisons and Punishment, incarcerated and undergraduate students alike complete the same readings and assignments, are held to the same academic standards, and earn three credits for completing the course. 

For the incarcerated Scholars, Howard says, it’s a meaningful achievement to be in that academic setting next to Georgetown undergraduates, even within the walls of the jail. 

“You see the incarcerated students build their confidence as they realize they can succeed in a Georgetown classroom and contribute valuable insights to class discussions,” Howard says. “They can then carry that confidence forward as they continue their education or reenter the workforce after their release.” 

The undergraduate students also carry the experience of the course with them through the rest of their time at Georgetown and after graduation. For Borges, it’s caused her to reflect on her own goals for her future. She has always planned to go to law school, but now she’s looking at other ways she can have a more immediate impact.

“This course really forced me to think about my next step,” she says. “I’m exploring different ways that I can have an impact within the criminal injustice system. I’m looking at grassroots organizations and community organizations, especially back home in the Bronx.” 

Her incarcerated classmates have empowered her to see that despite the overwhelming scale of injustices in the prison system, one person can have a positive impact in the life of another. 

“They allow us to see that we can help. And they have hope for us,” Borges says. “I know I want to fight for people. I know I want to help people. And that’s my true power, my own true passion in life.”

Prison Scholars