Curriculum Enrichment Grant Supports the GOVX Prison Reform Project

Launched under the auspices of the Georgetown Learning Initiative (GLI), Curriculum Enrichment Grants (CEGs) support course-related activities that strengthen the intellectual climate around introductory level undergraduate courses. They help faculty and students gain access to the larger DC/MD/VA community, bringing the curricular and co-curricular together to give students a richer sense of the broader implications and applications of work in a particular discipline.

This past spring, Marc Howard (COL-GOV and GU Law School) taught his GOVX course, “The Prison Reform Project,” in which students from Georgetown travel to Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) to learn alongside, and engage in conversations with JCI inmates. The travel to JCI, supported by a CEG, allowed students to combine experiential learning with scholarship around prison reform and criminal justice issues.

If you’re interested in learning more about CEGs or want to apply for a grant for the spring semester, please visit our website.

In the Spring 2016 semester, I began teaching a non-traditional special course called GOVX 400, “Prison Reform Project.”  The first version of the course met in a maximum-security prison, and the unique collaboration between Georgetown and incarcerated students led to it being featured as the cover story in the Washington Post Magazine.

The Spring 2017 version of Prison Reform Project focused on “returning citizens”—people who have recently come home after a period of incarceration.  The 18 students worked closely together in teams of three, to learn about the struggles and triumphs of reentry, and the students directed and produced six short documentaries to share each individual’s story.  The culmination of the course was the “Beyond 144” documentary screening and panel, which was attended by over 250 people.  The title “Beyond 144” refers to the total combined number of years served by the six individuals profiled in the documentaries.  Students introduced their films in between each screening, and the event concluded with a Q&A panel including all of the returning citizens featured in the films.  

By sharing these stories, the Prison Reform Project aims to raise awareness of the challenges of societal reintegration, and the implications for individuals, families, and communities, as well as to inspire others to involve themselves in efforts to end mass incarceration.

Four recently-graduated Prison Reform Project students have offered their reflections on the unique nature of this course and how it has impacted their lives.

“Participating in the Prison Reform Project was perhaps one of the best decisions I made at Georgetown. It was an extremely impactful experience that I will carry with me for many, many years. I had always been interested in the themes addressed by Professor Howard’s class, but the hands-on experience of working with returning citizens and their families, as well as creating a tangible final product, was extremely rewarding. I feel like I got to know Evans “Chuck” Ray on a more personal level. It is very easy for society to completely dismiss returning citizens as “bad eggs” due to the mistakes of their past, but these individuals are so much more than those mistakes and their lives are so much more complex that many assume. Evans Ray has such a positive outlook on life and has struggled for many years to bring his life to a place that he is more proud of. He has worked hard to build a life for himself and for his family after his incarceration and I admire his tenacity so much. As an aspiring attorney, it was bittersweet to get an up close and personal look at the flaws in the justice system. On the one hand, it is heartbreaking to hear some of the struggles faced by these individuals. On the other hand,  I take it as a challenge, to push the boundaries and work to better the system. I feel extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with these individuals and to tell their stories.”

–  Brittany Neihardt (COL, 2017)

“The Prison Reform Project allowed us all to engage with ourselves, one another, the larger DC community, and the criminal justice system well beyond the depth of any other class I took at Georgetown.”

“Most college classes provide the fundamental basis for discussion of or further engagement with a topic, but they never allow you to take that extra step to actually to confront it. As a fourth year student who felt burned out from sitting in classrooms listening to lectures, the format of the Prison Reform Project allowed us all to leave the sheltered gates of Georgetown and bear witness to one of the many examples of structural and direct violence that exists in DC today. I had the immense privilege of getting to know a man named Ronald, who, after being incarcerated for 42 years, immediately started pursuing his dream of becoming a criminal defense attorney upon his release. Although I hope to work for and with currently and formerly incarcerated populations for the rest of my life, I will never forget Ronald’s tenacity, fortitude, and drive. Ronald’s story is one of six our class was able to showcase to hundreds of Georgetown students through the Prison Reform Project, further deepening our community’s understanding of the inherently exploitative and traumatic nature of the United States criminal justice system. While my memories of each class I took during my undergraduate career have already begun to fade, I will find it hard ever to forget the successes, missteps, laughs, and tears shared during the Prison Reform Project.”

–  Elizabeth McCurdy (COL, 2017)

“The course’s non-traditional activities not only provided learning experiences I otherwise would never have encountered, but also enriched my personal interests and professional aspirations in furthering the questions and solutions posed in this class. In the traditional learning sense, this course provided invaluable lessons in documentary filmmaking, from the beginning stages of constructing storyboards and filming suitable engaging material with the audience in mind, to narrowing down the key points in the documentary during the editing process to leave the viewers with a powerful impression. As a liberal arts and STEM focused student, I never would have been exposed to these lessons without the course’s approach of enabling us to try the filming and editing process ourselves, while leaving room to showcase our own personalities and styles in the documentaries. The course’s impact, however, has been more substantial in shaping my career interests, as well as my own perspective of the legal system and the carceral state.”

“Interacting with previously incarcerated individuals and hearing their stories first-hand drove me to pursue law school after college, focusing on the public sector and this forgotten population, who after this experience is now impossible to forget.”

“I tie daily occurrences I experience to conversations I have had with the subjects of our documentaries, noticing the difficulties that those with a criminal record have to face on a regular basis. My main takeaways from a course focused on individuals and their stories, rather than books and lectures, have been acknowledging the importance of second chances, rehabilitation, and an open-mindedness. I continue to be reminded of these lessons every day.”

–  Joyce Lee (COL, 2017)

“The Prison Reform Project was one of the most memorable classes I took at Georgetown, thanks in large part to the experience of creating and producing a short documentary. As someone with no formal background in filmmaking, the prospect of making a documentary was initially intimidating, but the class’s many workshops and guest speakers helped us quickly learn the basics of shooting and editing footage. The final project allowed me and all of my classmates to effectively share everything we had learned with peers, friends, and family. Our public presentation was a powerful event that brought together people from the Georgetown community and beyond. The unconventional nature of the class made it one of the highlights of senior year and was I was very grateful to have taken it before graduation.”

–  Julia Kerbs (COL, 2017)

For more information on the Prison Reform Project and to watch students’ documentaries from the course, please visit Marc has also co-written an article about his course and it’s connection to larger conversations on criminal justice for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which you can read here.