The educational wing at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill. is drab and surrounded by concrete. But the learning echoes in the hallways.
In one classroom, a Northwestern University professor leads a discussion with 20 men about a classic Chinese novel, “The Monkey and the Monk.” In another classroom, tutors work with another 20 men on everything from algebra to interprerting black feminist texts.
These men serving time at this maximum security prison are enrolled in the Northwestern Prison Education Program, the first full liberal arts curriculum for people who are incarcerated. The program started in 2018 and has grown quickly. It recently received a $1 million dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand. Oakton Community College will come in the fall and students will be able to earn an associate of general studies degree.
To attend the college program, Broderick Hollins, Sr., 39, voluntarily transferred from a medium security prison where he had more free time and movement.
Stateville is different.
“A max is different. You in a cage all day. You in a cell with whoever. Don’t matter [if you’re doing schoolwork.] It’s open, it’s bars. There’s no privacy, and you gotta deal with probably 500 different personalities all day,” Hollins said.
Hollins covets the college program and plans to continue his education after his release the next year or so.
“When I come here, it’s like peace,” Hollins said.
To get into the program, the men are interviewed. They also write essays and analyze a text.
The differences between Northwestern classes here at Stateville and the ones that take place on the school’s main Evanston campus are stark. The men at Stateville, dressed in blue uniforms, do homework in cells. There are no computers. No lab space. No internet. No office hours. No university library.
But the classes in humanities, social sciences and math at Stateville have the same rigor as those taught at the university 50 miles north. At Stateville, students take a full course load, and there’s programming five days a week. They are graded.
At first, Demetrice Crite wasn’t going to apply. He’s 49 years old; he’s eligible for release in the year 2049.
Now, he says this education is the best thing that’s happened to him.
“Not only has it strengthened my relationship with people on the outside, it’s given me an opportunity to reestablish and reawaken some things I didn’t know existed within,” Crite said. “[The program] gives me an opportunity to show that, beyond where I am, I can be planted somewhere but someone’s going to see, as I blossom, accept and see my splendor.”
His favorite class has been the Sociology of Black Chicago.
That’s also the favorite class of Taurean Decatur, Sr., 29, who is serving a 105-year sentence.
“Even though I’m incarcerated, I still have to reach my full potential. I still have to strive to be revered in a certain way for my children, and I wanted to make them proud some way, somehow,” said Decatur, a dad of two 10 year olds. “I don’t have all the resources available to make them proud. So the ones given to me, I had to take them and conquer them.”
Philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey is the director and founder of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. She said her work has been radically transformed by spending so much time at Stateville.
“I’m going to be teaching a course in the fall on the philosophy of punishment and incarceration. And we’re going to bring 10 Evanston undergraduates to Stateville to take this class with some of our students in the program,” Lackey said. “And I think by looking at theories of punishment and examining the extent to which any of them support incarceration as we know it in this country, I hope it will be a transformative experience both for our students at Stateville and our students on campus here.”
With the new Mellon Foundation grant money, the goal is to create a plan to confer bachelor’s degrees in prison. And, in the fall, the program will expand to Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison near Springfield.