The inside of the education building at the Logan Correctional Center in central Illinois looks like a regular high school.
Most classrooms are empty. But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, one fills up with a dozen or so incarcerated women — the first female cohort of Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program.
Among them is 27-year-old Chelsea Raker, a Georgia native with tattoos running up her arms. She has one underneath her chin that says, “Take risks and prosper.”
“I tell a lot of young people who ask me [that] it says, ‘I made bad decisions when I was 21,’ ” she jokes.
Raker is sort of the class clown. She makes comments while the teacher is talking or rolls her eyes when officers enter the classroom mid-lecture to make sure all the women are where they are supposed to be.
But the young mother gets emotional when talking about what this program means to her.
“Just knowing that you are deserving of accomplishing something, or have the opportunity to do things that normal 21-year-olds would do, pursuing an education, pursuing your dreams, just makes you feel human,” Raker says, her voice quivering as she holds back tears.
But these programs are extremely rare in Illinois and around the country. While college students across Illinois return to campus this month to start a new semester, there are few options for women in prison. Logan has the only liberal arts degree-granting curriculum for incarcerated women in Illinois. Experts say these programs not only help students but society as a whole.
Prison education experts like Rebecca Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, point to research showing the more education a person pursues while in prison, the less likely they are to return.
“It doesn’t serve just the individual, that’s what’s been so clear from decades of research,” Ginsburg said. “Higher education is not an individual good. It’s a good that supports all of society, all the communities. It has ripple effects all throughout Illinois when we educate somebody who’s incarcerated.”
Despite that, Ginsburg said there are few programs nationwide comparable to Northwestern’s that confer degrees.
Without Northwestern, “I probably would be sitting in my room doing nothing”
Patricia Ouska, a soft-spoken 52-year-old who wears her hair in a tight bun, didn’t think she would be accepted into Northwestern’s program.
Now, she can’t imagine life without it.
“This program is the best thing they have ever offered in any prison that I have been in,” she said.
Ouska has been in prison for 30 years. She shared she was convicted of murder and armed robbery when she was young. When she’s released, she wants to help people leaving prison make it on the outside. Through Northwestern, she’s already helped set up a restorative justice court for young people in Evanston.
“Had Northwestern not come, I probably would be sitting in my room doing nothing,” Ouska said flatly.
The Northwestern program first started in 2018 as a pilot program for incarcerated men at the Stateville Correctional Center. It has since expanded to Logan, an all-women prison a half-hour drive north of Springfield, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Aside from the program, the Illinois Department of Corrections mostly offers limited basic education or a small number of vocational courses to incarcerated women. There were once more degree-granting programs in prisons, but in 1994 people in prison lost eligibility for Pell Grants, the main federal financial aid program for low-income students.
The loss of Pell Grants forced many postsecondary prison education programs to shutter as most relied on federal funding, Ginsburg explained.
“Especially here in Illinois, it’s shameful what’s happened to incarcerated women,” Ginsburg said. “There are two women’s prisons, Decatur and Logan. And for years there have been no postsecondary academic opportunities available to them.”
Ginsburg expects this number to grow next year as the U.S. Department of Education plans to restore Pell Grant eligibility for students in prison. But she has doubts about how constructively universities will spend the federal dollars.
“My bigger concern is that a lot of universities will see the federal dollars and want to get in … and not be invested in the project to the degree that a university like Northwestern or other universities are,” she said
The challenges of school in prison
Back at Logan, the students head into brainstorming groups. They’re in a design thinking class and their task is to re-imagine how parts of the Logan facility can be improved.
One group is in charge of re-imagining the cells, which the students said aren’t good for studying. Afterwards, they share their findings with the class.
“More study space, i.e. desks and chairs in the cells … Less individuals in cells,” one student said. The rest of the class nods in agreement.
There are other obstacles in prison. For security reasons, students don’t have access to computers, the internet or a university library. They write out papers by hand and communicate with professors through letters.
“It’s very challenging not to be able to communicate with your students in between classes … We’re very used to this as college teachers,” said professor Barbara Shwom.
The pandemic added complications when the program began in 2020. Logan was on lockdown due to COVID-19, and the students spent their first semester studying remotely without ever laying eyes on their professors. All they had was course packets, which they received by mail from professors in Evanston.
Raker was in a math class at the time. It had been a while since she was in school and she struggled to teach herself college-level math.
“Without having been in anything like this for a while, you don’t know how to learn per se,” she said. “You don’t know what study habits are good for you. And just to never see a professor who can work with you on this. That was a problem for me.”
Raker isn’t sure how she ended up with an A in the class. But she credits her grade to the network of professors, advisers and tutors that constantly write to students from the outside.
Now, two years later, classes are in person, the students have mostly adjusted and a predictable rhythm and camaraderie are in place.
Shwom said the faculty make sure at least one teacher shows up in person each week to give the students a chance to connect with their professors.
For students like Raker, it’s the one thing they look forward to.
“Just me being able to have something I can watch, I’m actually seeing progress,” Raker said. “I’m actually seeing myself accomplish something. It does tremendous things for me.”