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Liberal arts behind bars

Inmates at maximum security prison enroll in Northwestern classes

By Monika Wnuk

At a little past 10 in the morning, 15 students file into a small classroom at the end of the sunlit hall. For the next five minutes, the room rings with the screechy sounds of moving desks and casual chatter as the men take their seats in a circle. The chalkboard in front of them still shows remnants of last week’s discussion themes scribbled in white chalk—"testimonial injustice,” “narratives” and “reentry.”

Almost everything about this scene is familiar, except where it takes place – inside Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison for men, located about an hour southwest of Chicago. The students in the classroom are participating in a new Northwestern program launched this fall. The Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP), a partnership between the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and Northwestern University, is the first program in the state to offer liberal arts courses for credit that can be applied toward undergraduate degrees through the University's School of Professional Studies. Northwestern has pledged to waive tuition for those accepted into the program, and IDOC will count completed courses toward sentence reductions.

"This is a sterling example of Northwestern University’s commitment to meaningful community engagement,” said Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway. “The Northwestern Prison Education Program illustrates our simultaneous commitment to rigor and empathy in our teaching.”

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Philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey has taught classes on mass incarceration and ethics at Stateville Correctional Center for the past four years.

Today’s class at Stateville is on testimonial injustice – the idea that whether someone’s testimony is judged to be credible, either in a legal setting or in daily life, can be affected by the prejudices of the person hearing it. The class is taught by philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey, who founded NPEP after teaching classes at Stateville independently for the past four years. Lackey has been covering testimonial injustice in her ethics class at Northwestern for over a decade, but it wasn’t until she started teaching at Stateville that she saw the impact it has had on those who are incarcerated. 

“One topic that I always teach in my ethics course is moral permissibility of the death penalty.” says Lackey, “And every time I’ve taught this material at Stateville, I’ve had at least one person in my class who was on death row before the state abolished it.”

Lackey with students

In her ethics course, Lackey engages students in discussions around topics like testimonial injustice, and encourages them to write about their own stories. Sociology graduate student Anya Degenshein (right) provides writing assistance through one-on-one workshops.

More than 40 Northwestern professors have signed on to teach in the program. In the inaugural quarter, sociology professor Mary Pattillo is teaching the same course to both Stateville students and incoming freshmen on Northwestern's Evanston campus. That course, “The Sociology of Chicago,” examines research on Chicago through methods such as ethnography and demography. And Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor Sheila Bedi commutes with 12 law students to Stateville once a week for "Violence Reduction and Transformational Change in Justice Systems,” in which teams comprised of both Stateville and law students develop policy platforms to prevent crime and violence.

"Enrolling in Northwestern classes has been life-changing for these men," says Lackey. "I've had students tell me that this is the first piece of good news they've been able to share with their families in decades or that their mothers have had their NPEP acceptance letters framed."

22Stateville students enrolled

40Northwestern faculty

43%fewer rearrests as a result of prison education

Student Circle

Professor with students

History professor Benjamin Frommer (top) serves on the NPEP Advisory Committee, and English professor John Alba Cutler (bottom) will teach "Border Literature" during winter quarter.

One immediately impactful aspect of the expanded NPEP program for Lackey is that the IDOC will count completed courses toward a sentence reduction for prisoners. For years, she has testified at her students’ parole and appeal trials as a witness to the positive change they've made in their lives.

“At Stateville, my students come in identified by cell house and prison ID number, but in here it’s just Robert, just Tyrone. They learn how to develop their own perspectives and how to listen to each other. It’s as vital a community of scholars as we have at Northwestern,” says Lackey. 

While Lackey is occasionally faced with criticism for advocating to provide education for prisoners, one thing that can’t be argued, she says, is that education has innumerable benefits for prisoners, both on the inside where it reduces violence, and on the outside where it helps with reentry. One large study of prison education programs found that program participation reduces rearrests by 43 percent. Former inmates have been vocal about the enormous potential of those who served time in prison to act as agents of change in their communities upon their return. And studies have shown prison education impacts the lives of everyone connected to a prisoner – his or her family, children, and community. 

“When people say we don’t know how to deal with crime – that’s just false,” Lackey says. “We know very well that education is the most effective way to reduce recidivism and offset barriers to reentry into society.”

While working to pilot the program at Stateville, Lackey is also planning to expand the program to women’s prisons and jails, where prisoners with short sentences can use their education to aid their reentry sooner.  

“These men and women have the will to become educated and make thoughtful contributions to their communities. All they need is to be given the chance," says Lackey. “One of the most human things we can do is to engage with one another intellectually. It’s transformative."

Professor one on one with student

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Instruction and coaching happen in large and small groups. Philosophy graduate student Lauren Leydon-Hardy coaches Stateville students in college-level writing (top). Instructors share a light moment with students during an all-class discussion (bottom).

Published: October 17, 2018. Updated: October 23, 2018.

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