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Unlocking Math—in Jail

UMD Mathematicians Help Incarcerated Students in a D.C. Correctional Facility Prepare for Future Education, Employment

By Leslie Miller

illustration of prisoner doing math problems

UMD's Department of Mathematics is helping men incarcerated at the D.C. Jail build their math skills to for future jobs or continued education.

Illustration by Valerie Morgan

University of Maryland mathematics Professor Sandra Cerrai has always loved teaching, but the students in a new math class she led this spring were especially inspiring.

“I have rarely seen such participation, such a commitment, such engagement in a classroom,” Cerrai said. “It’s unbelievable.”

It wasn’t her typical group of advanced undergraduates diving into probability or grad students working toward an advanced degree; instead, they’re inmates at the Washington, D.C. Jail.

Since March, Cerrai and others from the UMD Department of Mathematics have been going to the jail, also known as the D.C. Central Detention Facility, every week to teach pre-college math to men incarcerated there. For Cerrai, it’s just as unique and special an educational opportunity as it is for her incarcerated students.

“This is not only a service we are doing for the prisoners, this is also a service that they are doing for us,” Cerrai said. “I think as educators it’s extremely important to engage in these types of initiatives because we can learn so much and become better teachers, and I think we have the possibility to make a significant difference.”

The spark for the program came from Dan Cristofaro-Gardiner, an associate professor who joined the math department in 2020. Inspired by a prison education program he was involved with during postdoctoral research in New Jersey, Cristofaro-Gardiner wanted to create a similar experience for his colleagues and students at Maryland.

“Teaching in prison really feels a lot different than teaching in a classroom in a very special way,” he said

Starting a math program inside a jail was no small task. It took weeks of research, emails and phone calls before Cristofaro-Gardiner connected with the Petey Greene Program, which operates volunteer education programs inside the nation’s correctional facilities. Petey Greene agreed to partner with the UMD math initiative as part of its College Bridge Program for Incarcerated Learners, which helps incarcerated men and women acquire pre-college level academic skills.

Holding in-person classes for incarcerated students was not a new idea at the jail. Inmates were already being taught a variety of subjects, including in a writing class run by faculty from UMD’s Department of English. But Cristofaro-Gardiner was excited to learn that the UMD program would likely be the first to bring in mathematics.

“The idea is to give incarcerated students access to mathematics education that can bridge gaps between where they are currently with their math and where they need to be,” he explained. “Ideally, when they’re released from prison, they can have positive educational experiences at the college level as well as a good understanding of the mathematical concepts that are helpful in their day-to-day life.”

Cerrai, who has previous experience working with prison education programs, stepped up to help Cristofaro-Gardiner lead the new math initiative. She and Alice Oveson, a Ph.D. student in applied mathematics and statistics, and scientific computation were the program’s first teachers. Senior mathematics major Joanna Hung and mathematics Ph.D. student Connor Martinez Lockhart agreed to help with tutoring, and mathematics Assistant Professor Boyu Zhang provided curricular support.

By the beginning of March, the first UMD math class at the D.C. Jail had begun. Each class generally has 15 to 20 students who meet in person on Fridays in a small classroom in the jail, Cerrai said; students can also come to in-person tutoring on Mondays.

“We tutor in one-and-a-half hour blocks and the time flies by every time,” Martinez Lockhart explained. “Working with incarcerated students has been a wonderful opportunity for me to teach in new ways to new types of students.”

From the beginning, participants have been involved, enthusiastic and eager to learn.

“For these students in the jail, this is really something important,” Cerrai said. “This program is really moving something inside of them.”

For Oveson, teaching at the jail has been enlightening and inspiring.

“It has been a transformative experience working with students who are so committed to their education,” she said. “It has made me realize how much I take my educational opportunities for granted.”

Because inmates at the D.C. Jail generally serve short sentences or get transferred to another facility, learning time is limited. Lesson plans for the math classes aim to give students the most meaningful educational experience possible, based on their knowledge of math and the time they have to participate.

Cristofaro-Gardiner believes that in addition to the benefits for incarcerated students and the volunteers who work with them, the new math initiative can contribute to an even bigger mission.

“I think this program is a really good thing from the point of equity and fairness,” he said. “The number of people behind bars in this country is huge, and if we’re not reaching them, it’s a really big missed opportunity.”

Thanks to the success of the first inmate math class, Cristifaro-Gardiner, Cerrai and colleagues are planning another in the fall. The hope is that with enough interest and volunteer help from math department students, faculty and staff members, the program will continue and even expand in the years ahead.

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