Mellon Foundation Grant Awards $1 Million to Prison Scholars Program

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s seeks to strengthen, promote, and defend the centrality of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse, fair, and democratic societies. In December of 2019, the foundation awarded Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program $1 Million for their work at the DC Department of Correction.

The Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) Program is one of a handful of university programs including Bard, Cornell, and Wesleyan that provide prisoners with the opportunity of earning a bachelor’s degree. The program began in the Spring of 2018 with 50 students receiving certificates at the event, half of whom were in the credit-bearing program.

“The Scholars Program has provided access to higher education to incarcerated men and women at the DC Jail,” said PJI director Marc Howard, “support from the Mellon Foundation will allow us to expand this work by reaching even more incarcerated individuals and making families stronger and communities safer.”


“My Georgetown experience, it’s been amazing,” said a prison scholar named Anna. “It’s given me a chance to reevaluate my life and where I’m headed. Because when I came in here, I was a heroin addict and now I’m considered a scholar. This is something that I will never forget.”

Howard notes that the class he taught was the first time students inside a prison (or jail) and students at a university took a course together and everyone received credit.

Michael Woody, another prison scholar, said having Georgetown students come to the DC Jail for Howard’s Prisons and Punishment credit-bearing course was “a very humanizing experience that also brought a diversity of perspective.”

“Bringing these higher education opportunities inside not only liberates one entity, but of equal importance is its transformative powers, which in turn is causing a mental shift that I believe leads to a cultural shift,” Woody said.

Scholar Roy Middleton learned the day of the event that he would be released after 24 years in prison.

“To learn and study, to be encouraged and challenged by my professors, and then to see a pay off in real-time, has been a catapult for me,” Middleton said. “I pray that we can continue this growth and continue building, because this is what changes prison conditions.” He was cheered by the audience, as was former prison scholar Zachary Johnson, who was released Sept. 30 and is now finishing the semester on the Hilltop.

“Zach is the embodiment of the power of education,” Howard said.

Education and Confronting Reality

The courses are held in the DC Correctional Treatment Facility. The Mellon grant will help deepen and strengthen the DC program possibly expanding it to Maryland. In addition, the grant will allow Georgetown University to develop and award a bachelor’s degree with coursework in liberal arts and business.

“With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Georgetown is going to educate the next generation of formerly-incarcerated leaders who will help to reverse the policies that trapped them,” said Joshua Miller, PJI’s director of education and co-principal investigator of the grant with Howard.

This program confronts the current reality of having 2.3 million Americans in jails and prisons addressing questions about why the United States has an incarceration rate that is seven times higher than other democracies.

Both Haley Wierzbicki (C’21) of Clayton, North Carolina, and Frances Trousdale (C’22) of New York City, who spoke at the event, said taking the class alongside the prison scholars had led them to consider careers in criminal justice.

“I came to Georgetown with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, let alone what I wanted to pursue after college,” Wierzbicki said. “I’m not saying I have it all totally figured out, but my exposure to the Prisons and Justice Initiative and eventually this class has really made me realize that this is the work that I want to do.”

Seeing the Horizon

President John J. DeGioia, whose office provided the seed funding for PJI, gave the keynote speech at the event.

“You cannot talk about paying a debt to society from a jail cell without windows … No one can change their life if they don’t see a horizon,” DeGioia quoted, “my hope is that your time together over this past semester has shown you a new horizon, has provided you with windows into new knowledge and has enabled you to gain a deeper sense of your own authentic self,” DeGioia told the prison scholars.

Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth also spoke at the event and praised the partnership between Georgetown and his agency.

“We’re seeing the dream when we look to our left and to our right,” he said. “Because we’re seeing the transition when they go back to their respective housing units and they start having conversations around what they learned, and that to me is what education is about.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to sit in some of the classes and sometimes people will say, ‘Well, is it the same thing that’s happening on the outside?’ I would actually say it’s a secret recipe – it’s better.”

Kardashian Support

The program has included lecture series with speakers such as media personality Kim Kardashian West; Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson; Mélisande Colomb, a Descendant of the more than 270 enslaved individuals sold by Maryland Jesuits in 1838; and Georgetown assistant professor of government Jamil Scott.

Kardashian West shared her journey to becoming a criminal justice advocate and heard from the scholars about their experiences this past summer. She later tweeted, “All prisons need this program.” Howard responded, ““Kim has quickly become one of the foremost voices tirelessly advocating for criminal justice reform, and we are grateful for her time spent with our scholars.”

Comprehensive Programs

The Prisons and Justice Initiative also includes:

  • The Pivot Program, which accepts a selective class of formerly incarcerated DC residents for a rigorous, paid, 10-month program aimed at reentry and employment.
  • The MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program, a partnership among the DC Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, Georgetown and a host of prestigious Washington law firms. The program trains previously incarcerated men and women.
  • The Prison Reform Project, a Georgetown course for which students were able to help free a wrongfully convicted man in 2018.
  • PJI Pals, a Georgetown student mentoring program that helps children between the ages of 8 and 18 with an incarcerated parent or parents.
  • Internship Matching Program, which partners with a number of prison reform organizations in the DC area offering internship opportunities to college-aged students.

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