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Northwestern Prison Education Program students first incarcerated people to graduate from a top 10 university

Sixteen students at Stateville Correctional Center earn bachelor's degrees

Students from the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) made history as they received their bachelor’s degrees from inside Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

This is the first time in U.S. history that incarcerated students have been conferred a bachelor’s degree from a top 10 university.

From inside a theater at Stateville, past several security checkpoints and the facility’s now-closed panopticon-style cellhouse, nearly 300 guests — fellow NPEP students, Northwestern faculty and staff, students’ friends and family, and law makers — gathered to witness the graduates walk across the stage and receive their diplomas from Northwestern University Provost Kathleen Hagerty.

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You have enriched Northwestern University in ways that will echo for decades to come.”

Jennifer Lackey
Founding director of NPEP

Award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award in 2015, addressed the graduating class as the program’s commencement speaker.

In his speech, Coates described his tumultuous relationship with education in his youth and the connection he felt with NPEP students. “When I got the invitation to come here to address you, wild horses couldn't stop me because I'm addressing myself,” Coates said. “I don’t know you, but I know you. I don’t know you, but I love you.”

Coates commended the NPEP graduates, including James Soto, who has helped exonerate several incarcerated individuals; Bernard McKinley, who became the first incarcerated individual in the state of Illinois to take the LSAT; and Michael Broadway, a student who battled stage four prostate cancer and wrote a novel, all while taking classes.

Broadway, who has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to graduate, was able to reconnect with his mother on graduation day — the first time in nearly two decades he has seen her in person. 

Said Coates: “I think I can safely say that I will never in my life address a class that’s as decorated as this.”

Jennifer Lackey, the founding director of NPEP and the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy and professor of law (courtesy) at Northwestern, addressed each graduate and reflected on the impact this cohort of students will have on the future of the program and the university.

“It is often said that education is transformative, and I believe this even more wholeheartedly with each passing day in our community,” Lackey said. “But I have also been powerfully moved by the way you all have transformed education. You have radically expanded what it means to be a Northwestern student. You have enriched Northwestern University in ways that will echo for decades to come.”

Since 2018, NPEP has partnered with Oakton College and the Illinois Department of Corrections to deliver credit-bearing courses to incarcerated students. In January 2022, Northwestern admitted the inaugural class of NPEP students — the same students who graduated on Wednesday.

In addition to Coates and Lackey, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker also addressed students through a pre-recorded video message to the graduates, congratulating the class for defying the “assumption and stereotypes that have been heaped upon you.”

In her in-person address to graduates, Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton lauded the graduates for their achievement and highlighted the impact prison education programs can have on society. Data show that incarcerated individuals who participate in prison education programs have a 43% reduction in recidivism rates.

“This graduation is a significant step forward for higher education within the criminal legal system and we must do more. All people, regardless of their circumstances, deserve access to education and to realize their full potential,” Stratton said. “The Northwestern Prison Education Program is a testament to how the power of education can truly transform lives and provide hope for a better future, both within and outside prison walls.”

Graduates had the opportunity to address the audience before receiving their diplomas on stage from Provost Hagerty.

“At Northwestern, we believe in transformation,” said Hagerty in her address to the graduating class. “In fact, one of our guiding principles is ‘We transform society.’ And that's not an easy thing to do. All of our graduates here today can attest to the hard work it takes to make a positive change. I congratulate and commend all our graduates for harnessing the power of education to make positive changes in your lives and to be able to share what you've learned with your communities.”

The 16 graduates will remain a part of NPEP as teaching assistants and fellows, helping to support approximately 60 students at Stateville Correctional Center who are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees. At Logan Correctional Center, a multi-level security state facility for women located in Lincoln, Illinois, approximately 20 NPEP students are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees.

Colin Hanner is a writer for the Northwestern Prison Education Program.