Two young black men are proving prison does not have to ruin your life.
The Washington Post recently profiled Donte Small and Sanford Barber, two former cellmates who made the best of their prison sentences by seeking higher education while incarcerated in Baltimore.
The men enrolled in classes after Barber saw a flier advertising the courses. After writing letters and being interviewed, both men were accepted into Goucher University’s inaugural prison education program in 2012. As they shared a cell, the pair motivated each other by reviewing each other’s papers, having discussions about class and taking turns using their toilet as a desk.
Small graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science on Friday, May 25, and is currently working to prepare his younger brother, who is in high school, for college. Small, who was released in 2014, wants his success to “push, challenge and change the narrative about individuals with a criminal past.”
Barber was released last year and transferred to Pasco-Hernando State College in Florida. He's working on an associate degree in information technology. After graduating from Pasco-Hernando State, Barber plans to attend the University of South Florida for his information technology bachelor’s degree.
The men represent a rare success story for prison education programs.
“It’s tragically rare in the United States,” said Max Kenner, a prison education expert and executive director of a prison education initiative at Bard College in New York.
Goucher President José Antonio Bowen agrees. “It’s unusual mostly because of a lack of imagination."
However, Bowen hopes that more prisons will encourage inmates to pursue their educations. “It’s the right thing for the country,” Bowen said.
Congress approved a federal ban on Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994, leading to programs shutting down. Many that remained in operation were forced to seek financial resources from private investors. But there is hope the government might be changing its mind about repealing that ban.
In 2016, there was an experiment that allowed several colleges, including Goucher and Bard, to use Pell Grant funds for prisoners.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the Trump administration plans to continue the experiment to see if the results could influence policy. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressed interest in overturning the ban, saying it is “a very good and interesting possibility.”