Marvin Marshall was 17 when he first went to prison for assault and battery. He dropped out of high school in junior year, made some bad choices and was arrested and imprisoned a few times.
“It was pretty boring,” Marshall said about prison. “Your day consists of walking around aimlessly, just talking, you just read, or tried to work out. You don’t have anything to occupy your time constructively, so you’re either going to hang out with people who are going do more crime and find out a better way to do better crime.”
About 60 percent of all prison inmates test below a sixth grade reading level. In The past, many states boasted good educational programs. Illinois was one of those states. East Moline and Vienna Correctional Center educated its prisoners. But budget cuts have affected ex-offenders’ educational opportunities.
Marshall had low reading skills. He wanted to take classes in prison, but couldn’t.
“While in prison, school was available but only to first offenders,” he said. “If you were there more than once wasn’t able to get into the [high school] in IDOC. If you were in the IDOC, currently doing a sentence, you had more than one case, some type of clinch where you couldn’t be in the GED class.”
After he got out of prison, Marshall turned his attention to the only thing he knew how to do.
“I just went back to crime, just surviving,” he said. “It’s a snowball effect. You get a bright idea and you’re back in jail. It’s been very difficult to adapt positively into society without education.”
Millions of people enter prison with low literacy every year. And in the past, as many as 900 former inmates left Illinois prisons with a bachelor’s degree each year. They did it by receiving need-based federal Pell grants.
But the Crime Control Act of 1994 barred future prisoners from getting financial assistance for bachelor’s degrees. And Malcolm Young says that changed the educational programming within the prison system.
Young studies prisoner reentry and employment at Northwestern University School of Law. He says in the past, former inmates had plenty of opportunities to learn. They told him services were not difficult to find.
“They described a prison system that was fairly rich with educational programs from secondary and post-secondary levels, vocational programs in a number of fields, and a lot of training and a lot of activities for younger inmates,” he said. “And these folks described to me coming through the system, maturing, getting their lives together, and coming out, making parole or being released and doing alright.”
Young says community college involvement with prisons has reduced dramatically: more than 80 percent of educational programs involving community colleges have disappeared.
“I’ve heard the current system, the current (Department of Correction’s) programming described as kind of a desert compared to what it used to be in the old days,” he said. “You can go into a number of Illinois prisons and still see the shops or locations where these programs were taught, but now they’re empty.”
Young says it wasn’t just a change in prison finances. It was a change in mindset too.
He says as part of a national trend to get “tough on crime” directors of the Illinois Department of Corrections shifted the emphasis from rehabilitation and program work to keeping people locked up.
Deborah Denning, chief of program and support services for the Illinois Department of Corrections, says they still have educational programs now but many come as a result of thinking creatively.
“If we can't find the colleges that will come in and help us to create those literacy programs then we have to use the resources within the facility, and look for those individuals who are capable of teaching others and want to do that,” she said.
Young says that’s not enough. Prisons are overcrowded. And many inmates are there with short sentences.
“It’s almost fictional that it’s going to provide the kind of benefit that we really want,” Young said. “If you were an educator, what would you do in six months that would really make a difference? Whatever it is, we’re not doing it.”
That leaves non-profits and places like halfway houses to pick up the slack. Marshall turned to St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago after his time in prison. He earned his high school diploma there, and is now taking a college prep course nearby.
Neal Portis, 30, lives at St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago. He says the educational services offered there have made all the difference in his life after prison.
“When people get back out here into this society they coming out with a chip on their shoulder,” he said “They’re coming back out the same way that they went in.”
Portis improved his writing skills in St. Leonard’s classes. Now he’s writing about his past experiences for fun.
“When I write my little screenplays, it’s safe, no one’s being harmed,” he said. “Because I’m using something that was at one point a negative thing and I just turned it into something positive. I just want to see how this turn out. I ain’t got nothing to lose, so I’m going to keep writing.”