Taking Math to Jail

UMD mathematicians teach math classes inside a Washington, D.C., correctional facility

University of Maryland Mathematics Professor Sandra Cerrai has always loved teaching, but the new math class she led this spring has been especially inspiring.

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

The students in this class aren’t from the university, they’re inmates at the Washington, D.C. Jail. Since March 2023, 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 a unique and special educational opportunity—and not just 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 explained. “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.”

Building on an idea

The idea to start the D.C. Jail math program came from Dan Cristofaro-Gardiner, an associate professor who joined UMD’s Department of Mathematics in 2020. Inspired by a prison education program he was involved with during his postdoc in New Jersey, Cristofaro-Gardiner wanted to create a similar experience for his faculty colleagues and students at Maryland. 

Dan Cristofaro-Gardiner headshot
Dan Cristofaro-Gardiner. Photo courtesy of same. Click image to download hi-res version.

"Teaching in prison really feels a lot different than teaching in a classroom in a very special way,” he said. “I really wanted there to be a space in our department for our undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty to be able to get together and have easy access to these opportunities and partner with each other. From the beginning, the department was very supportive.”

But starting a UMD math program inside the D.C. Jail was no small task. It took weeks of research, emails and phone calls before Cristofaro-Gardiner finally 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 their College Bridge Program for Incarcerated Learners, a program that 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 subjects like English and reading. 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.”

Recruiting volunteers and building a program

During the planning phase for the program, representatives from Petey Greene took charge of administrative challenges like determining which inmates would be selected to participate, while Cristofaro-Gardiner focused on planning and recruiting a team of mathematics department volunteers.

“Something I want to emphasize is that the time commitment for volunteers in a program like this is substantial,” he noted. “It’s important that they come regularly to build relationships with the students in the program and help them learn.”

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 & 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.

“There are generally 15 to 20 students, we have a small classroom in the jail with a blackboard and we teach the class in person like a regular class,” Cerrai said. “Alice and I go there on Fridays and we stay there for an hour and a half to teach, and then on Mondays the students go there and they do tutoring.”

“We tutor in one-and-a-half hour blocks and the time flies by every time,” Martinez Lockhart explained. “I have always enjoyed teaching, especially in mathematics, and 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 in this jail math program have been involved, enthusiastic and eager to learn.

“For these students in the jail, this is really something important. This program is really moving something inside of them,” Cerrai observed. “You can’t imagine the level of commitment and participation that you find in that tiny classroom, it’s incredible.”

“For sure this is something they want to do, these are students who are highly motivated to do this,” Cristofaro-Gardiner added. “In my experience with incarcerated students, the potential is really striking when you teach them. It’s extremely easy to imagine if circumstances were somewhat different that they would just be students in your classroom.”

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,” Oveson reflected. “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.

“Students get a certificate for completing the program, but I would say the main thing we want to give them is knowledge,” Cristofaro-Gardiner noted. “Since it’s part of the College Bridge Program, we’re teaching them pre-college material, things like exponents, whole numbers and fractions. We want them to have this knowledge so they can thrive in college classes and use these skills to improve their lives.”

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.”

A successful start

Thanks to the success of the first inmate math class, plans are underway to teach another class at the D.C. Jail 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. 

“This is something that is so rewarding for us,” Cerrai said. “I think it’s something everyone should do.”

“Working with this program has taught me so much,” Oveson added. “Getting to work with these students has been an absolute privilege.”

It’s all about making a difference—teaching math and changing lives, one incarcerated student at a time.

“If you can have a real impact in one, three, five people’s lives, just imagine, I mean that’s huge,” Cristofaro-Gardiner explained. “A lot of these students have not had enough positive educational opportunities and if you can give them some sense of the importance and joy of education and help them, it’s a fantastic thing.”

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.