Nov 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Northwestern's Prison Education Program graduating its first class

Four students sit at desks in blue shirts looking at papers

Students of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. Photo: Monika Wnuk

Northwestern University's first class of incarcerated students will walk across the graduation stage on Nov. 15, having completed their coursework from prison.

Why it matters: This is the first time that incarcerated students will receive bachelor's degrees from a U.S. News and World Report top 10 ranked university.

Details: The Northwestern Prison Education Program currently has four cohorts of 20 students each, said Jennifer Lackey, its founding director.

  • The graduating class studied during the COVID-19 pandemic, where remote learning challenges were poignant, Lackey said. For example, without as much access to technology, Northwestern staff members would bring printed materials and scan all handwritten assignments.
  • "What this cohort lived through," she said, "it's really nothing short of extraordinary."
  • In the last application cycle, 400 incarcerated people applied from prisons across Illinois and 70 were interviewed. Professors teach classes mostly in person.
  • Students released from prison before graduating continue joining classes remotely while also going to campus.

The program is "quite literally a lifeline" for some students," Lackey said.

Zoom in: The Northwestern classes have helped Daryl Johnson stay engaged after being released from 27 years of incarceration in June, just weeks after his cohort began classes. He's continuing the degree from Chicago by joining video calls in the classroom, where professors teach in prisons.

  • "This keeps guys that are in there motivated to want to do the right thing, to want to educate themselves, and gives them something to do besides sit in a room all day," he said.

When Broderick Hollins graduates, he hopes to pursue a job where he can help other people with re-entry after their prison terms end. While incarcerated, he helped 87 inmates enroll in GED programs, he said.

  • Having access to challenging learning while incarcerated helped Hollins' mental health, he said. Hollins self-taught thermodynamics lessons while recovering from a serious COVID-19 infection when he had to miss classes.
  • "Your mind can get into a dark, deep depression. Your mind is what's imprisoned," he said, adding that putting the brain to work is "the best exercise you could have in prison."
  • Hollins was released after nearly 13 years and is in the Northwestern program's second cohort of students.

Zoom out: Postsecondary prison education includes noncredit classes and degree-granting programs that have faced funding challenges.

  • For educators looking to be reminded of education's value and power, "there's no better place to go than to some of our [program's] classrooms," Lackey said.
  • In 1990, 59% of states offered college education programs in prison, according to a report from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
  • That figure dropped to 31% immediately following the 1994 Crime Bill, which excluded incarcerated people from receiving Pell Grants. By 2005, 36% of states reported offering these programs.

The latest: Pell Grant eligibility was restored this year, according to the Department of Education.

  • About 760,000 incarcerated people were estimated to become eligible for aid as a result.

Worth noting: Incarcerated people in post-secondary prison education programs are 48% less likely to be re-incarcerated and have 12% higher odds of being employed post-release, according to the Brookings Institute.

  • For every $1 spent on correctional education, $4 to $5 are saved on re-incarceration costs, per Brookings.

The other side: Many prisons, though, don't have higher education partners, the Marshall Project reported.

Go deeper: Prisons are banning thousands of books

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