Seven incarcerated Illinois men received bachelor’s degrees on Wednesday in a graduation at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison just southwest of Chicago.
The new college graduates completed Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls (UWW) and Prison + Neighborhood Arts & Education Project (PNAP), a free program that includes an individualized curriculum. Guests at the graduation included Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Chance the Rapper, who performed.
The news media weren’t allowed to attend the ceremony, but afterwards WBEZ talked to the keynote commencement speaker — the activist and scholar, Angela Davis.
“I decided to participate because I think that education within prisons is so important. I can remember when the withdrawal of Pell Grants in connection with the Clinton crime bill led to the dismantling of education programs in prisons all over the country,” Davis said. “The fact that this graduation could happen was an indication not only of the amazing achievement of the individuals who received the degree, but it was an indication of the success of struggles that have taken place all over the country over the last several decades.”
As a person who has advocated bringing education back in the prison, Davis said she felt proud to be at the Stateville graduation. Her message focused on the knowledge behind prison walls and how prison intellectuals have critiqued structural racism.
Rich Stempinski, manager of the Office of Adult Education and Vocational Services for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said he hopes the graduation leads to many more.
“It’s a small step for Stateville. It shows the other offenders what seven gentlemen can do over the course of two years, and we hope it permeates the system and gets more offenders interested in furthering their education,” Stempinski said.
The bachelor’s degree program at Stateville is one of few in Illinois prisons. Stateville also offers a master’s degree program through Chicago-based North Park University, according to an IDOC spokeswoman. Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary at Danville Correctional Center offers a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
Educators want to see more beyond the non-degree and vocational programs the state currently offers. In 2017, IDOC spent $276 on books for its educational programming across 28 correctional facilities. In the early 2000s, the state prison system spent roughly $750,000 each year on books.
“Since the early 1990s, funding for higher education to people in prison has been nominal. This is true, in part, due to federal and state legislation that has limited access to education and other educational and intellectual resources for people behind bars. The lack of funding coincided with ‘tough on crime’ policies and the cultural shifts that went along with them. Despite this organizations like PNAP and universities such as Northeastern Illinois University are working to change this,” said Sarah Ross, of PNAP.
Erica Meiners is a Northeastern Illinois University faculty member.
“I am incredibly proud and honored to stand alongside these seven scholars and applaud their academic achievements. Their scholarly contributions, reflected in part by each student’s final portfolio, are exemplary,” Meiners said.
Davis told the graduates that they are “productive citizens who can participate in the remaking of society.”
According to PNAP, the seven graduates are:
Joseph Dole is a writer, artist, activist and one of the co-founders of Parole Illinois. He is actively involved in criminal justice reform legislation and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree and a depth area in critical carceral-legal studies.
Raúl Dorado is an incarcerated student, author and prison education advocate. His depth area is justice policy advocacy. His goal is to foster healthy relationships within his prison community.
Darrell Fair’s studies have depth areas in social justice, community organizing, business entrepreneurship and community relations. Darrell chooses to organize and educate the community to work toward the eradication of inequality.
Antonio (T.K.) Kendrick’s depth areas are criminal justice administration and transformative justice. He selected those depth areas because his interests are individual and social transformation. UWW has given him the skill set he needs to be a positive force and change agent wherever he goes.
Marshall Stewart is a Native American raised by a Mexican-American family, which fostered his love of service and led him to choose organization communication and resource development for non-profits as the depth area for his baccalaureate degree. His NEIU degree builds upon his previous education in the medical field, as well as his work in the paralegal profession.
Devon K. Terrell was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and grew up hip-hop. His UWW depth area is poetic justice in black culture, which focuses on the use of poetry and art to transform youth culture and society.
Eric Watkins’ area is urban-American jurisprudence and transformative justice education. Eric chose this social science field of study to better serve the needs of his community.