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Prison classrooms in Illinois open doors to graduate degrees

Jim Larrison

When Don Rios is paroled in 2047, he will leave prison with a master’s degree he earned behind bars.

Undeterred by the reality that he will be close to 70 when he completes his 45-year sentence on murder charges, Rios has plans for how he will use the master’s degree earned through North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts.

Don Rios
Illinois Department of Corrections
Don Rios

“Coming home, I plan to use my knowledge to serve under-resourced communities. I will eventually start my own organization that serves returning citizens, provides a support system for the loved ones of the incarcerated, prevents violence of all levels, and mentors youth, among other things,” Rios said in an email response to questions from WGLT.

In June 2022, Rios was among 28 men incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center to earn a master’s in Christian Ministry and Restorative Arts. Referred to as “inside students,” the men studied alongside North Park students also working toward advanced degrees.

Following its initial classes in 2015 blending traditional and incarcerated students for a certificate level program, the school launched the four-year master’s degree in 2018. Offering a master’s degree to men with decades or a lifetime left on their sentences was a key component to the program, said Vickie Reddy, a graduate of the first North Park cohort who now serves as North Park’s director of operations.

“Often there’s not a lot of programming for those individuals,” said Reddy, adding the graduates also become tutors for others engaged in educational programs.

North Park has opened a similar program at the Logan Correctional Center for women in Lincoln.

Learning while serving

The state operates of a network of more than 40 facilities, including 24 correctional centers. A collage of basic and advanced adult education programs, undergraduate and vocational training opportunities are offered. Six facilities offer post-secondary education toward a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Stateville, with its four programs, has the most post-secondary offerings through its relationships with North Park, Northwestern, Northeastern and DePaul universities, according to IDOC spokesperson Naomi Puzzello.

During the first seven months of the state’s current fiscal year, 38 individuals have earned associate degrees and nine have completed bachelor’s degrees, said the agency.

The level of education for those entering Illinois prisons is generally low, with about half lacking a high school diploma. About 200 are college graduates and another 60 hold graduate degrees, according to IDOC data.

For students to be eligible for the North Park program, they must have a high school diploma or GED and sufficient reading and writing skills to handle the demanding course work. The school received an accreditation exemption to enroll students without a college degree.

The average age of new residents of the state’s penal system is 39 — well above the age most people are working on education goals. Challenges exist for incarcerated students and the IDOC. Limited funds for education and staff shortages that worsened during the pandemic brought many programs to a grinding halt.

The financial obligation of the North Park programs is covered by grants and private donations.

The majority of the 29,000 individuals now in state prison will be released and return to communities where they will need a job, housing and support as they start over with a felony record. Those who complete educational programs before their release had 43% lower odds of recidivating than their counterparts who did not, according to research from the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization.

Jamie Snow
Illinois Department of Corrections
Jamie Snow

For Stateville student Jamie Snow, the courses are a way to improve incarcerated men and women before they leave state custody. For those unconvinced of the value of the programs, Snow asks:

“Do you want them to come back to the community with some educational skills that they’ve learned while they were incarcerated, or are you just wanting them to come back exactly like they were when they went in?”

Completion of courses has others benefits for the community, said Puzzello.

“One study found that for every dollar invested in prison education, taxpayers save four to five dollars in re-incarceration costs during the first three years post-release,” said the IDOC spokesperson.

Leaving comfort zones

Snow was more than 15 years into his life sentence when he signed up for classes through DePaul University.

“I just had this stubborn streak in me. I guess I was like, I can’t learn anything from these people in here,” said Snow, in a recorded response to questions from WGLT.

Snow, who maintains he is innocent of killing Bill Little in Bloomington in 1991, became involved in DePaul’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. He is a member of a DePaul think tank where a cohort works together on legislative proposals related to incarceration issues. He also is scheduled to graduate in 2025 with a master’s degree from North Park.

At 57, Snow estimates that he spends least 15 hours a week on homework.

“This is really tough work. It’s gotten me so far out of my comfort zone,” he said.

Christina Rivers, associate professor of political science at DePaul, has resumed her pre-pandemic trips to Stateville to meet with students enrolled in the 10-week think tank curriculum. The unpredictable nature of movement and scheduling within the prison means Rivers usually meets with half of the 20 students each time she makes the 43-mile trip.

Abandonment of comfort zones is part of the DePaul program, said Rivers.

“One of the premises of Inside-Out is to break down barriers in both directions,” she said, by identifying the stereotypes that exist inside and outside prison walls.

The prison environment holds its own lessons for the Chicago students. Rivers said, “For outside students, it’s really getting a sense of what it’s like to be in a prison and what it’s like to learn in a prison," she said, adding the experience of pat downs and security screenings “has been very jarring for some students.”

For those serving sentences in the Will County maximum security prison, the chance to work with students and faculty from universities has been a welcome distraction from life in the nearly 100-year-old institution where toxic water, vermin and unsanitary conditions are regular complaints.

“This is a dangerous place to learn and live in. And these folks are thriving in these classes. I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Rivers. Men held in other facilities with better conditions have requested transfers to Stateville to begin or complete work on degrees, according to instructors.

Rivers’ cohort worked together for more than a year on a proposal to educate those leaving the adult and juvenile prison system about their voting privileges. The result was passage of the Re-entering Citizens Civics Education Act that mandates peer-led voting rights training. Implementation has been slow due to the pandemic. In 2021, a total of 903 individuals completed the civics program that succeeded with the help of legislators and advocacy groups.

Engaging potential

Eric Watkins is beginning year 26 of a life sentence for murder. A high school graduate, he was 23 when he came to Stateville, a place that at the time offered a GED program and training sessions for janitors. Watkins has a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University and is working on a North Park master’s degree.

Eric Watkins
Illinois Department of Corrections
Eric Watkins

“Attending college not only reconnected me to receiving higher education, but it reunited me with humane treatment commonly missed while encaged and incarcerated,” Watkins said in an email to WGLT.

Watkins volunteers as a writing advisor for North Park and participates in two think tank programs.

Success is a new experience for some students, said Will Andrews, an adjunct professor and lecturer with the North Park program, who recalled the first time a 30-year-old student earned an "A" on an assignment.

“It was the happiest moments of his life. He said, ’No one ever told me I could do this,'” said Andrews.

The classes have a ripple effect, according to students and university staff.

“We believe they are deserving and they are positioned to be agents of change. They become unofficial mentors to younger inmates,” said Andrews, adding that Stateville students have reported “seeing a better environment” inside the prison since the courses were offered.

The initial focus of the North Park program shifted to an emphasis on re-entry skills after input from Stateville students who told the university “we don’t want you to come in here and just make us happy prisoners,” said Reddy.

The results are apparent in family relationships, said North Park University instructor Mary Veerman.

“Our students at Logan have talked pretty regularly about how they will connect with family members around things that they’re learning in courses,” said Veerman. She said classes on trauma, healing and conflict resolution also impact relationships.

“The department continues to see an enormous demand for primary and secondary educational opportunities for individuals in custody and hopes to increase these opportunities as resources are available,” said Puzzello.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.