Classrooms Behind Bars
Drew’s College Bound Consortium gives inmates a chance to earn a college degree and a new start on life
Drew’s commitment to providing higher education to prison inmates is growing deeper. A Drew-based program known as the College Bound Consortium, founded in the fall of 2010, has arranged for faculty from Drew, Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) and the Drew Theological School’s Partnership for Religion and Education in Prison (PREP) to teach nearly two-dozen courses to 170 inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, New Jersey’s only state prison for women.
Consortium Director Bahiyyah Muhammad says inmates can earn college credits—even college degrees—that can help ease their transition to life after prison. “We have students who are incarcerated who are on the dean’s list for RVCC,” Muhammad says. “One of our students is being released after serving 15 years, and she’s been accepted into Camden Community College.”
The Consortium evolved from a single course that associate professor of sociology Kesha Moore taught to both Edna Mahan inmates and Drew students in the fall of 2008. That course, part of a national initiative called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, got Moore thinking about how Drew could provide ways for incarcerated students to pursue college degrees. With a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation—founded by Doris Buffet, sister of Warren—Drew created the College Bound Consortium.
Edna Mahan inmates taking classes through the Consortium can earn an associate degree from Raritan Valley and a bachelor’s degree from Drew. Professors from the Theo School’s PREP program also teach for-credit courses at Northern State Prison in Newark, although they are not part of the Consortium’s degree programs.
Since Muhammad’s hiring as director last fall, she’s worked to spread the word about the Consortium to colleges across New Jersey and students across the Drew campus. She’s reached out to Princeton, Rutgers, Kean and other schools, hoping to recruit them into the Consortium. She also arranged for a March 19 viewing of The Last Graduation, a film about the decline in prison education programs nationwide. This fall, Muhammad says, associate professor of sociology Caitlin Killian will teach the first course in the consortium to include incarcerated students and Drew undergraduates.
Muhammad says she’s been inspired by the response of Drew students. “They’re coming from all over,” she says. “One student is interested in doing a book drive for incarcerated students or their children. It’s pretty interesting and organic the way the interest is growing.” —Chris Hann