University of Baltimore graduates Second Chance students from correctional institution as program expands

Two students earned their University of Baltimore diplomas Wednesday after taking classes from within Jessup Correctional Institution as part of a program set to expand services.

Kenneth Bond, 44, and Kelly Gilliss, 43, participated in the Second Chance College Program, which offers post-secondary education to incarcerated students through federal funding. Miles away from the detention center, the pair walked across the stage, cheered on by family and several other students who were also recently released from JCI. Six more Second Chance students are set to finish the program this year, according to the university.

“You know how a regular college student comes to campus and they go to class? We had fight to get out of our cell to let us into school,” Gilliss said. “We literally had to fight for our education ... so that made it even more worth it.”

Last month, UB announced receipt of an anonymous, three-year gift of $887,000 to support its entrepreneurial students, which include those enrolled in Second Chance. The gift will allow Second Chance students to obtain a minor in entrepreneurship — they all currently earn bachelor’s degrees in human service administration. It also will also create new scholarship and living stipend opportunities for Second Chance students who have been released, as well as for graduate students and those in the real estate and economic development program.

UB was one of 67 colleges selected to join the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance experimental initiative in 2016. UB hosts its program at JCI, a maximum-security prison for men. Students there benefit from academic support from UB in addition to their coursework. When they are released from incarceration, students have the opportunity to continue their courses on campus while receiving reentry support services.

Second Chance Director Andrea Cantora, who is also an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice, said Bond and Gilliss have “service-oriented” mindsets, helping others who cross their paths. Cantora said even when the university surprised Bond and Gilliss with a graduation cake, the duo cut and served pieces of the dessert meant to celebrate them.

“They’re just both incredible students,” Cantora said. “They’re both leaders. For the past six years, they’ve helped other students in their program.”

Bond and Gilliss graduated with 3.8 GPAs. Both are first-generation graduates.

Bond entered JCI in 1998 and was part of the first group of students to join Second Chance in 2016. Prior to the program’s start, he took part in the JCI Scholars program, through which multiple universities sent professors to the prison to teach nonaccredited classes. Therefore, he was high on the selection list when he applied for Second Chance.

Gilliss was incarcerated in 2012 and moved to JCI 18 months later. He also participated in JCI Scholars and helped start the Second Chance program, which he later joined himself around 2017.

Gilliss and Bond both made the transition from JCI to the UB campus early this year. The pair said moving from prison to a college campus went smoothly, given the support of their family, Cantora, program manager Denelle Alton and reentry coordinator Latonya Epps.

Gilliss got a job in the UB IT department, and Bond began working with the Baltimore County Detention Center, teaching 18- to 21-year-olds, as well as serving the community through various other organizations.

Throughout each step of the process, Bond and Gilliss had each other’s backs, overcoming obstacles together.

“I’m happy to be doing this with Kelly because he helped me do it; we helped each other,” Bond said. “We persevered together, and to be out here and graduate with him is a blessing.”

Following graduation, both alumni said they want to use their degrees to serve others.

Bond plans to continue working in the community, as well as the fight to prove his innocence, he said. Gilliss starts his masters in finance in two weeks, which he will pursue at his undergrad alma mater, UB. Each graduate has plans to celebrate his achievements with a celebratory dinner alongside family. Bond is also hosting a graduation cookout, which Gilliss said he thinks will be a lot of fun.

In addition, Bond and Gilliss hope to continue developing the Second Chance program, using their experience to guide others who follow their path.

“We’re just getting started,” Gilliss said. “And as more guys come home, we’re helping make it easier for them.”