UB History Alive in Archives
UB Associate Professor of History Nicole Hudgins here continues a series of history-related interviews exclusively for the UB Post. The series will feature men and women whose personal or professional lives can help us learn more about the Baltimore area’s fascinating history. Here, the second interview in our series, UB history professor Betsy Nix answers questions about her experience teaching incarcerated students at the Jessup Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in eastern Howard County. UB’s special collections of local history, and the importance of preserving our archives.
Nicole Hudgins: Betsy, I know since settling in Baltimore many years ago, you’ve become a really active citizen of the city. Besides currently chairing the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at UB, what groups in Baltimore do you find time for?
Betsy Nix: I’m a founder and board member of Southwest Baltimore Charter School, a public school in my neighborhood that serves over 400 Baltimore City kids in grades K-8 (http://www.sbcschool.org). I’m the Vice President of the Baltimore City Historical Society (http://www.historicbaltimore.org), and I represent that organization on the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) (http://chap.baltimorecity.gov) for the city of Baltimore. I’ve taught at the University of Baltimore for 13 years.
NH: How did you get interested in the Jessup Correctional Institution Second Chance program?
BN: Andrea Cantora is the faculty director of Second Chance, and associate professor of criminal justice at UB. I got to know Andrea when she was a CPA [College of Public Affairs] rep to the UB Honors Council and I was the Honors Program director. Andrea was working so hard as a volunteer to get approval for the program to start, and she was so committed to the success of the members of the cohort that I wanted to get to know them, too. Andrea was so enthusiastic about the program that I wanted to find a way to get involved.
NH: What have you taught for the incarcerated students? Can you tell us a little about the logistical procedure in place for teaching in a prison?
BN: The students are completing their general education requirements in the first few semesters. Andrea told them the history program Gen Ed offerings, and the cohort picked Modern America, a survey course that covers 1865 to the present. I used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and the urban witness committee of my church, Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian, donated a copy for each student.
In my on-campus classes, I use slide shows to prompt discussion, but limitations on technology at JCI made me go old school. At Jessup I was not allowed to bring in a flash drive with a slide lecture, so I made copies of maps, the photographs of Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and graphs. No binder clips or spiral notebooks. The biggest challenge was actually my clothing. We had to dress modestly, but the classroom/library was extremely hot, so finding appropriate outfits was difficult.
NH: Why no clips or spiral notebooks?
BN: No binder clips or spiral notebooks are allowed because of the possibility of creating lock-picking tools or weapons.
NH: We talked earlier about how delighted you were with the class of students. What was the classroom like? The students?
BN: The course started in 1865 [end of the Civil War], but the book started with the first encounters between Europeans and native peoples. We read the first three chapters together as a class, then skipped about 200 pages to get to 1865. Most of the students read the portions of the book that weren’t assigned and engaged in animated discussions about that content.
One student who was in his 50s told me about the risks that the students were taking by just enrolling in college courses. He reminded me that all of them had a certain status at Jessup, as mentors and employees. Taking college classes, where they would be graded and would have to learn new skills like math and keyboarding, challenged that hard-earned reputation. His insights reminded me about the leaps that all adult learners make when they come back to school. My Thursday night class was the highlight of my week. I had to stay on top of current events because students always asked about historical precedents — immigration bans, the North Korean nuclear program, firing an FBI director, and there was no Googling once I got inside.
One Thursday night there was a problem with the memo at the front gate that should have allowed me to go in. I had to go home without having class. At a conventional campus, I imagine many students would be happy if one class were cancelled at the last minute. But not at Jessup. The students were so happy when class took place the next week and insisted we add another session to the schedule to make up for the missed class. Several students asked for extra copies of the text book to share with their friends. Others said they had started talking about history to their kids during visits and phone calls. They were completely engaged with the content and clearly saw the importance of historical context in understanding our world.
NH: We’ve read about how prisoners could apply for Pell Grants in order to earn credits toward a degree at Jessup. A study funded by the Department of Justice found that incarcerated individuals who participated in education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who did not participate in any correctional education programs. What do you think the students get out of taking classes with UB professors?
BN: I hope they feel part of the UB community even if they aren’t on campus. Students at Jessup have UB t-shirts and come out of the program with ties to another institution. It’s important for returning citizens to have connections with people and access to supportive networks in the communities they will rejoin. When they are released these students are well on their way to reaching an educational goal, and the support that UB can provide should help them transition to their new lives. It’s also helpful for people outside correctional institutions to see what life is like inside, and all of the potential of the incarcerated population.
NH: Did you see a full range of grades in the class?
BN: The students as a class submitted the strongest set of midterm exams I have ever seen in a class. They organized study sessions to prepare, and almost everyone wrote for the entire two-and-a-half-hour class. Students also wrote two papers and submitted drafts for each one. No one turned in their assignments late. The final grades for the class were higher than the final grades in any other class I have taught in my 20 years of teaching.
NH: Very impressive. It seems to me that if we, as a society, spent more money nurturing our school children, we might end up having to spend less money incarcerating adults. A 2011 article in The Atlantic reported that one year at Princeton University cost $37,000, whereas one year at a New Jersey state prison cost $44,000. I’d rather the eighteen-year-old go to Princeton or another college!
BN: I agree! Many of the students, now middle-aged, had entered prison at age 17. At least one had not finished high school. One student who grew up in Washington, DC and as a kid played in Frederick Douglass’s yard in Anacostia, remarked, “I can’t believe I had to go to prison to learn about Frederick Douglass.”
NH: Wow – that really gives one the sense of there being “pipeline” from poorer neighborhoods to prison – the sense of our warehousing people. Did you see 13th on Netflix? What did you think of the filmmaker’s argument?
BN: I saw 13th and I think it is an effective introduction to the history of mass incarceration. After I saw the documentary, I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by John Pfaff. Pfaff makes a compelling argument that changing drug sentencing is not going to make a big dent in the prison population; the key to stemming mass incarceration lies in reforms to prosecutorial practices. I also read Chris Hayes’ Colony in a Nation, and thought that he brought up some important historical context.
NH: Will you be teaching inmates at Jessup again? What was your favorite part of the experience?
BN: I hope I will get to teach there again. They have just accepted a new cohort who will need another humanities Gen Ed course, so maybe I will get to go back. My favorite part of the experience was getting to know the students. They were so committed to their studies, engaged and engaging, smart and witty.
NH: Are there any volunteer opportunities for students or faculty if they want to assist with inmates’ education?
BN: As Second Chance scholars transition out of Jessup, there will be opportunities for UB students to act as mentors. We sometimes have opportunities for graduate students to volunteer. We are always accepting school supplies (composition notebooks, printer paper, highlighters, pens, etc.). For info on that students can email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We do have a donation page at https://www.ubcommunity.org/second-chance. We are always looking for donations to help support the operations of the program. Andrea Cantora has more information about opportunities.
NH: Talking with you about your experience was fascinating, Betsy. It leaves me with a hopeful feeling – thanks!