CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A program designed to give incarcerated people access to upper-division college courses is proving to provide unexpected benefits, not only to the inmates involved in the program but also to their families, the prison and the University of Illinois professors who volunteer to teach behind bars.
The Education Justice Project, co-founded in 2006 by landscape architecture professor Rebecca Ginsburg, offers four upper-division courses, tutoring and a variety of workshops each semester at Danville Correctional Center, one of the Illinois Department of Corrections’ high-medium security facilities. This semester, the course offerings include Shakespeare’s World; Black Freedom Struggles, 1955-75; Linguistics 490; and a “discovery” course featuring weekly readings and discussions led by a guest lecturer.
Ginsburg, who was involved in a similar program at San Quentin while she was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, said her U. of I. colleagues have found that this ostensibly charitable endeavor has its own rewards.
“One of our instructors who’s a very senior faculty member here said we ought to be promoting EJP as a spa for instructors who are jaded, because once you engage with our students at Danville and see their excitement, you will return rejuvenated to your own classroom,” Ginsburg said.
“The students are sophisticated, serious, mature and very intelligent,” she said. “They come to class prepared to engage respectfully and energetically with the instructor and with one another. It’s a delight. It’s an absolute joy.”
EJP offers up to three courses per semester that earn college credit at the U. of I., though the program doesn’t yet lead to a degree. To qualify for EJP, incarcerated students must have at least 60 hours of college credit, typically earned through Danville Community College, which provides some lower-level courses in the prison. Among Danville Correctional Center’s population of about 1,880 men, about 120 are enrolled in EJP.
“The students who are in our program do not represent the typical incarcerated man or woman. These are exceptional people,” Ginsburg said. “What makes them exceptional is the journey they’ve been on.”
Most inmates who qualify for EJP are serving lengthy sentences for serious, violent offenses, often gang-related, and usually committed at a young age, she said. The majority of these men entered prison without even a GED.
“There are all sorts of both structural and personal factors that contribute to the decisions a person makes that lead him to end up in prison,” Ginsburg said. “And a common factor in the lives of our students is having been discouraged from taking school seriously, and ‘graduating themselves’ from formal education.”
They spend the first few years of their sentences feeling angry and self-pitying, but eventually decide to use this time to get some sort of education. When they discover that they have some academic prowess, their self-image starts to change. They go on to take and succeed in community college classes, strengthening their new identity, shifting them into a new social group and changing their status among fellow prisoners.
“I can’t tell you how often students have said to me, ‘I had no idea that I was smart!’ And they become the people that others go to if they need help filling out a form or writing a letter or reading legal documents,” Ginsburg said.
In EJP, they have access to a broad spectrum of classes ranging from psychology, philosophy, architecture and poetry to economic theory, politics, the Roman Empire and the Holocaust, as well as reading groups and workshops five days a week. Instruction is provided by about 75 volunteers – a mix of U. of I. faculty members, graduate students and community members. The courses have an unanticipated effect on the tenor of communication between inmates and family members on the outside, Ginsburg said.
“It allows them to talk about something that’s often humanizing and inherently relationship-building, and the extent to which that makes a difference to families at home was a surprise,” she said.
And just like college students everywhere, even inmates respond to new ideas and fresh perspectives by opening their minds and plumbing deeper thoughts.
“I believe strongly that higher education at its best helps people to think critically about themselves and the world and their role in the world,” Ginsburg said. “It encourages self-reflection and questioning.”
Students demonstrated these qualities last year when, in a workshop on business writing, the professor asked them to formulate practical business plans. Some students crafted plans for entrepreneurial endeavors they could start after they’re released; others surprised the professor by proposing non-profit programs that could be implemented inside the prison. One of those was a plan to help the approximately 200 inmates who speak only Spanish – a deficit that disqualifies them from most prison jobs – by training fluently bilingual EJP students as ESL teachers. The EJP instructors helped the students revise the proposal and get it approved by the Illinois Department of Corrections. Now called Language Partners, the program has been operating successfully for 11 months.
“Language Partners is probably the prime example of channeling the talents and abilities of these men toward what they’re inclined to be doing,” she said. “And what they’re inclined to be doing at this point in their lives is making a difference in the world.”
EJP students also are working on a “productive landscape” program, transforming the existing prison garden into a biodiversity laboratory, and they are formulating a program to prevent youth violence in their home neighborhoods in Chicago. Furthermore, they are aiding in the documentation of every part of EJP, to help Ginsburg and the other instructors produce the kind of scholarship that could persuade other universities and prison systems to follow their lead.
“We don’t see this as a discreet program in which we’re educating a few men and they feel better and they get smarter,” Ginsburg said. “Because we’re at a research-oriented university, we believe that we have a really lovely opportunity and responsibility to produce scholarship that makes the case for providing higher education to incarcerated people.”
The Education Justice Program is funded by grants and private donations.
For more information, email Ginsburg at firstname.lastname@example.org.