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Education Justice Project wins prize for innovative prison ESL class

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Photo provided by
Education Justice Project

Volunteers from the U. of I. pose at Danville Correctional Center with the Education Justice Project students they trained to teach ESL to other prisoners. The program, called Language Partners, was proposed by EJP student Jose Ramón Cabrales, second from the left in the back row.

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5/17/2013 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Students in the University of Illinois Education Justice Project have received the Arcus Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. The students’ project, Language Partners, was one of three entries honored last week from among 188 submitted by organizations in 23 nations. The $30,000 award will be split with two other social justice organizations.

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EJP student Rafael Cortez, left, helps fellow prisoner Victor Quintero learn English. | Photos provided by Education Justice Project

The Education Justice Project, established in 2006, provides upper-level college courses and educational workshops at Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security state prison in Illinois. EJP is staffed by U. of I. professors, graduate students and other community members on a volunteer basis, and funded mainly by grants and donations.

Language Partners is a project that was proposed by an EJP student, Jose Ramón Cabrales, out of a desire to help fellow prisoners who spoke only Spanish. In the video submitted to the Arcus Prize jury, Cabrales explained that he knew several other EJP students who, like himself, were fluently bilingual and eager to teach. The EJP staff helped develop Cabrales’ proposal, brought in English as a second language specialists from the U. of I. to train EJP students to become ESL teachers, and got the cost-free initiative approved by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Since its beginning in January 2011, the Language Partners program has become so successful that Cabrales has co-written two peer-reviewed articles, published in the journals Radical Teacher and Teaching English in the Two-Year College. The Language Partners also created a cookbook (begun as an exercise in writing directions), which they published last month.

EJP was co-founded by Rebecca Ginsburg, a professor in the U. of I.’s department of education policy, organization and leadership. To enroll in EJP course work, incarcerated men must have accumulated 60 hours of college credit (usually through Danville Community College’s classes at the correctional center). In addition to developing Language Partners, EJP students have written numerous published articles, essays and poems; performed two Shakespeare productions; and produced an art show, which was displayed at the University YMCA.

Editor's note: To contact Rebecca Ginsburg, email

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