Students at DC Jail Begin Spring Semester
Prison Scholars Program continues virtual instruction for incarcerated students
Georgetown’s incarcerated students kicked off their spring semester of classes at the D.C. Jail — fondly known as the university’s “Southeast campus.”
The Prisons and Justice Initiative is offering a selection of four courses at the jail this semester through its Prison Scholars Program. Students explore topics in religion and spirituality, politics, justice, and incarceration and earn college credits for their work.
In its fourth year, the Prison Scholars Program is currently virtual due to COVID-19 precautions. The 16 students use secure prison-issued tablets to watch pre-recorded videos shared by their professors, post comments and questions, and complete assignments.
Dr. Annalisa Butticci, who teaches a three-credit “Religion and Spirituality in Africa” course, says the men and women in her class have already shown an incredible level of insightfulness and academic talent in just the first few weeks of the semester. Despite the limitations of virtual instruction, the students use written feedback, poetry, and music to express themselves and learn from one another.
“I can say that some of the best students that I have had not only at Georgetown but in my career as a teacher are at the D.C. Jail,” she says. “They are amazing human beings. And not because that place made them amazing, it’s because they were already good people who made a wrong choice or who were in adverse circumstances.”
Butticci says she hopes that in addition to developing an understanding of African religions, cultures, and societies, her class will serve as an avenue toward self-discovery for her students.
“I hope that this class will show them how religion and spirituality have always been sources of personal, social, and political power in African societies and the diasporas, from anti-colonial struggles, to slave rebellions, and the contemporary Black Lives Matter,” she says. “And it’s a power that they can find in themselves and in the various religious practices of the society that they will someday be a part of again when their circumstances change.”
Professor Travis Adkins, who teaches the three-credit “African Politics” course, similarly hopes his class will not only teach students about topics including African history, politics, and U.S.-Africa relations, but also inform the lens through which they can understand the world around them.
“What I really want you to be able to do is to have in your mind, in your spirit, or in your emotional sense of yourself the ability to understand what is happening in the world now,” he says. “And so it’s really about situating them with the tools to understand the world going forward, not just looking backwards.”
Adkins, who was recently appointed Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, says he sees his students tracing the connections between U.S. engagement in Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, police brutality and other issues that have affected Black communities throughout history — and bringing their own experiences to the table.
“And I think what they realized, which is a big part of what this course is about, is the seminal nature of that U.S.-Africa relationship, as well as how the U.S. government’s view of and interaction with Black people is a big part of why they are in the situation that they are in,” he says.
Two one-credit courses round out the spring semester. In Beba Cibralic’s Global Justice course, students further explore justice and injustice in the world from a philosophical and theoretical lens. And PJI Director Marc Howard teaches his popular Forgotten Humanity of Prisoners course.
Howard’s course, in its fourth year as a “Bridge” course for main campus seniors, is unique for its full inside-outside model — meaning that the class includes both incarcerated and non-incarcerated students, who all do the same work and receive the same credit. The purpose of the course is to establish deep human connections across the previously impermeable boundaries of incarceration. Students read and discuss Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” and through their interactions form bonds of mutual understanding, respect, and friendship.
While difficult to replicate the in-person exchange of Georgetown’s main campus students attending class at the jail, this year’s course is functioning virtually.
“Although it’s challenging since we don’t ever get to see our Scholars on screen, we’re sending in videos of our weekly Zoom meetings to them, and they’re responding in writing through their tablets,” says Howard. “I’m so proud of how both sets of students are rising to the occasion and making this a meaningful and powerful human experience.”
PJI launched the Prison Scholars Program at the D.C. Jail in 2018 with a lecture series and non-credit courses, expanding to offer credit-bearing courses later that year. Credit-bearing courses have included topics in philosophy, literature, politics, biology and finance, mirroring the robust liberal arts curriculum found on the main campus. The program’s aim is to educate, prepare, and empower its scholars to be a positive force in their families and communities after their release.