A partnership between Northwestern University and the Illinois Department of Corrections this fall launched a new education program at the Stateville Correctional Center that could lead to liberal arts degrees for prisoners.
The Northwestern Prison Education Program is the state’s first program to offer liberal arts courses for college credit.
The University has pledged to waive tuition fees for students accepted into the program, and Corrections will count completed courses for inmate sentence reductions.
The program, which recently welcomed its first batch of 20 students, aims to reduce recidivism while extending the benefit of a high-quality education to those behind bars.
“When people say we don’t know how to fight crime, that’s just plain wrong,” said Jennifer Lackey, program director and professor of philosophy at NU. “We know very well that education is the most effective way to reduce reoffending and overcome obstacles to reintegration into society.
Lackey has been teaching non-credit courses for four years at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security state prison for men in Crest Hill, Illinois.
“The classroom is absolutely transformative for these students,” she said. “They come in identified by their cell number and their prison ID number, but here it’s just Robert, just Tyrone. They learn to develop their own perspectives and to listen to each other. It is a community of academics as vital as the one we have at Northwestern.
The state of Illinois already offers a range of educational opportunities at many of its 28 IDOC institutions, but none of them offer incarcerated students the opportunity to earn a liberal arts degree.
“Education is an essential part of the rehabilitation of offenders,” said IDOC Director John Baldwin. “By providing opportunities for people in prison to improve their critical thinking skills and earn college credit, we are preparing them for success when they return home.” “
The program is open to all incarcerated men in Stateville who have either graduated from high school or passed the General Education Development Examination (GED). Applications include written essays and in-person interviews, which are reviewed by a committee of Northwestern faculty and graduate students.
“This is a great example of Northwestern University’s commitment to meaningful community engagement,” said Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway. “The Northwestern Prison Education Program exemplifies our concurrent commitment to rigor and empathy in our teaching. “
The first term will feature two courses, one taught by sociology professor Mary Pattillo, titled “The Sociology of Chicago,” which examines research on Chicago using methods such as ethnography and demography. Pattillo will teach the course to 20 students at Stateville, while simultaneously teaching it to new freshmen at Northwestern’s Evanston campus.
The second offering, “Violence Reduction and Transformational Change in the Justice System,” will be taught by law professor Sheila Bedi, with a class roster comprised of both Stateville and law students from Northwestern Pritzker. Students will work in teams of four – two Stateville students and two law students – to develop policy platforms aimed at preventing crime and violence.
Over 40 Northwestern professors have expressed interest in teaching at Stateville in subsequent terms.
Research has shown that while two-thirds of formerly incarcerated men will return to prison within three years, attending prison education reduces the re-arrest rate by 43%.
One study found that the higher the degree obtained, the lower the rate of new arrests – 14% for those with an associate’s degree, 5.6% for those with a bachelor’s degree and 0% for those with have a master’s degree. Additional studies have shown that education in prison has an impact on the lives of everyone associated with an inmate – their family, children and community.
“These people have the drive to educate themselves and make a thoughtful contribution to their communities,” said Lackey. “All they need is a chance.”