7 Earn College Degrees at Illinois Prison’s First Graduation Ceremony

Seven incarcerated people from an Illinois corrections facility earned bachelor's degrees on May 15. The new college graduates are from Stateville Correctional Center, WBEZ reported. The graduates completed Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls (UWW) and Prison + Neighborhood Arts & Education Project (PNAP), a free program that offers classes in arts and humanities, according to PNAP’s website.

The bachelor’s degree program at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill is the only one of the few offered in Illinois prisons, according to WBEZ. The radio station identified the grads as Joseph Dole, Darrell Fair, Raúl Dorado, Marshall Stewart, Antonio Kendrick, Eric Watkins, and Devon Terrell.

Angela Davis, the Civil Rights icon and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton attended the graduation ceremony. Chance the Rapper also performed a song during the ceremony, according to the PNAP website. In a statement to The North Star, Northeastern Illinois University marketing and communications chief Mike Dizon said the university is “extremely proud.”

“Our university's mission is to prepare students for leadership and service, and this mission extends to these individuals who are incarcerated thanks to the commitment of the faculty and staff who support Northeastern's University Without Walls program," Dizon wrote.

During her speech at the graduation ceremony, Stratton stressed the importance of criminal justice reform. “These students are teaching us that for people to be accountable, it means that we must provide people the opportunity for them to learn and grow. Prison reform, like criminal justice reform, is about expanding justice, equity and opportunity,” Stratton said.

Sarah Ross, co-director of Art and Exhibitions at PNAP, told WBEZ that funding for higher education in correctional facilities is extremely limited.

“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,” Ross told the news station. “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.”

In April, lawmakers re-introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act of 2018, which would restore the Pell Grant for incarcerated people. The Pell Grant is a federal subsidy for students that have not earned a bachelor’s degree and does not need to be paid off. Individuals who are incarcerated are currently ineligible for Pell Grants, according to the Federal Student Aid website.

“To ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals have the tools they need to be productive members of society, we must see education as a right that can create a path to a better life for them,” US Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the supporters of the bill, previously said. “REAL Act… will expand access to Pell Grants in federal and state penal institutions, reduce costs for taxpayers, help address the recidivism crisis, and empower those who have made a mistake to rebuild their lives.”

A January report from the Vera Institute and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality found that the majority of incarcerated people are “academically eligible to advance to postsecondary level courses,” with 64 percent of 18- to 74-year-olds who have a high school degree or its equivalent.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Report