Vonté Gaffney: Changing Mindsets Through Education

Nearly two years after he was admitted into Georgetown’s bachelor degree program, Vonté Gaffney still carries copies of his acceptance letter in a folder, along with his latest academic transcripts. About halfway through his sixth semester of classes, he planned to mail the documents to family and friends to give them a tangible reminder of his progress toward earning a college degree.

Gaffney was one of the first people accepted into the Georgetown Bachelor of Liberal Arts program at the Patuxent Institution, a prison in Jessup, Md. The program, which awards degrees through the university’s College of Arts & Sciences, kicked off with Gaffney and the rest of the inaugural cohort in early 2022.

“It’s a beacon of light,” Gaffney said of the program. “We are able to create an epicenter for learning at this location.”

A First Chance at College

Gaffney said he never felt he had much of a chance at education growing up in Baltimore city in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Classes and homework seemed detached from the difficult reality he was living in outside of the school’s walls, and he ultimately dropped out before graduating.

Gaffney was incarcerated in his early 20s, but he found the drive to pick back up his school books and take his education further than he had previously imagined.

“During my time, I always wanted to go back to school,” he said. “I thought that if I received an opportunity, I could show the world who I really am.”

Gaffney earned his GED in 2008 and took advantage of the courses and programming that were available to him in prison. His family encouraged his interest in learning, and his late aunt Janice would mail him brochures of different training and education programs she came across.

But it wasn’t until he stepped into the Georgetown classroom at the Patuxent Institution that he was back in a formal educational environment for the first time since leaving high school. His mom Marva was “ecstatic” when he was accepted.

Gaffney said becoming a Georgetown student has given him a space where his intellect is valued and his knowledge can continue to grow.

“To be able to display my skills and my talents has been a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “Education brings out that which is already inside you.”

Changing Perceptions

Gaffney said classes in philosophy, social sciences, theology, and language have helped him and other students develop a new worldview through their scholarship. This mental shift has been especially powerful for those who, like him, grew up in difficult circumstances and developed what he called a “criminal mentality” at a young age.

“Education is a vessel to change the way that we think, and when we change the way that we think, we can change the way that we live,” he said.

Equally as powerful as changing the students’ own worldview is the way that education can change how the world views them, Gaffney said.

“I look at it as an opportunity for myself and others to be seen in a different light,” he said. “I’m more than just a prisoner.”

Guiding the Next Generation

Gaffney is almost halfway to earning a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown. He hopes that his education will help him grow as a criminal legal reform advocate and a youth mentor. He has already developed ideas for two mentorship programs aimed at guiding young people away from the path that Gaffney himself went down at a young age.

“They can take another route rather than going through what I went through,” he said.

Even within the confines of a prison, Gaffney is having an impact on those around him. As one of the pioneers of the Georgetown program’s first cohort, his hard work and achievements have a ripple effect through the prison system.

“If given the proper resources or opportunity to display our talents and skill sets, our actual experience and success can create a lightning rod for others,” he said. “A lot of people in the system are rooting for us. They know that if we can be successful, they can be successful.”

Prison Scholars