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A group of Northwestern students living in Crest Hill, Illinois dedicate most of their time to completing assignments and studying for rigorous classes. Now working towards a bachelor’s degree, they are much like their Evanston counterparts. With one key difference: this group will graduate behind bars.
The undergraduates are incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison for men, where many are serving 50-plus year sentences.
They enrolled in Northwestern’s Prison Education Program, a degree-granting program run in partnership with Oakton Community College, offering students a tuition-free liberal arts curriculum.
Through the program, students earned an associate degree from Oakton in December 2021, though the ceremony was postponed until April 2022 due to the pandemic. (Pictures of the graduation are displayed throughout this story.)
“It was one of the most meaningful and memorable days of my life,” said Jennifer Lackey, the Director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. She founded the program in 2018. Today it serves 36 students at Stateville and 20 students at Logan Correctional Center for women near downstate Lincoln, Ill.
But this is not the end of the students’ educational journey. With an associate degree from Oakton, Stateville students may continue taking classes through the program to earn a four-year degree.
Only last month, Northwestern University announced publicly that it would confer bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated students. Now, Stateville students are a year away from earning their Northwestern degree.
They will make history as the first cohort of incarcerated students to earn a bachelor’s degree from a top 10 university in the U.S.
‘Teach with love’
“I don’t want it to be over with,” Lynn Green, 42, told the RoundTable when a reporter visited this June. He said he expects to complete his bachelor’s degree in a year, but doesn’t want to stop taking classes.
Green said no class ever truly engaged him until he enrolled in the Northwestern prison program. Here, the instructors “teach with love,” he said. “The professors make it seem like they teach you and only you.”
Before the program launched, Green said he remembers hearing a rumor that a Northwestern program was coming to Stateville, but he didn’t believe the news until one of his peers handed him an application form with the words “Northwestern” inscribed at the top.
“I was shaking,” Green said. “I didn’t want to wrinkle the paper.” He recalled feeling anxious during the entire admission process, but when he finally received his acceptance letter, he laminated it and gave it to his father.
Incarcerated at 20, Green has now served 22 years of his 50-year-sentence. Looking back on his high school self, Green said he is “repulsed” by some of his behavior. “I focused so much on being accepted,” he said. Through psychology, Green wants to try and help young people who like him were influenced by their peers.
Many Stateville students share Green’s passion for psychology, but the program also offers classes on a variety of subjects, including astronomy, play-writing, thermodynamics, history, journalism, economics and sociology. Anthropology professor Sera Young taught an especially popular class on water insecurity.
One of Young’s students, Michael Broadway, 50, said taking her class felt like “turning lights on.” The class taught him about the dangers of consuming lead, and Broadway realized that high lead exposure in his home neighborhood is likely connected to the area’s crime, aggressive behavior and the learning disabilities in children.
By lowering their IQ, lead makes young people more susceptible to bad influences, leading to mass incarceration, he added. “I’ve been drinking this damn lead water my whole life,” he said.
Craig Harvey, 41, learned about life’s inhumanity through Young’s class. He considers his own behavior prior to his incarceration to be “inhumane,” but his ideals have changed since taking these classes. “I found my humanity through education,” he said.
Young’s class inspired Shareaf Fleming, 41, to take action. Through the class, Fleming learned about women in Kenya who walk barefoot for miles in order to reach the nearest source of water.
Fleming is developing a fundraiser called “Kicks for Kenya” to collect new and used shoes for Kenyan women. He wrote a song to help launch the fundraiser, and his cousin is going to film a video that will include a public service announcement.
Students are dedicated and grateful
“I had no idea going in that this would be such a meaningful class to students,” said Young.
She described her students as funny, clever and very dedicated. She also said she feels extremely grateful to be their instructor. She said she also has a lot of respect for the students because they face so many challenges. In prison, Stateville students don’t have computers or even typewriters. Instead, they must hand-write all their essays and assignments. “Think about what it takes to do everything by hand,” said Young.
Andre Patterson, 43, said in addition to writing papers by hand, students don’t have access to many study spaces. Sometimes they find themselves trying to study or work while sitting in their beds. The classes are also more challenging than Patterson first expected they would be. “I was humbled very early on,” he said.
Patterson grew up in Evanston and when he first learned about the Northwestern program, he felt compelled to join because of its connection with his hometown. Patterson attended ETHS, where he said he got involved with the wrong crowd.
At 21, he was convicted of murder in an armed robbery and given a 60-year sentence. Patterson said he struggled with hopelessness when he was first incarcerated. But he has since taken accountability and wants to try and repair the harm he caused in whatever way he can.
Abdul Malik Muhammad, 42, is trying to use his education to become free. He said he was wrongfully convicted at 20 and given a 50-year sentence. At that time, he could barely read and write and couldn’t afford an attorney to defend him, he said. He decided he had to take classes and educate himself.
Muhammad suffers from a speech impediment, and on the first day, he approached program director Lackey to ask if he could enroll in some of her classes.
“It was something about Professor Lackey, when I talked to her, I didn’t stutter,” he said. Since joining the program, Muhammad said he has found a family. “It has made a world of difference in my life,” he said. “It gave me the purest form of love in my life.” He said the program also gave him the ability to fight stupidity, and he is now going to court and hoping for a speedy resolve.
Robert Boyd, 42, is also using his new-found knowledge to become free. He said he could serve 20 more years, but is going through the clemency process. Incarcerated at 18, Boyd said he thinks his life could have been different if high school teachers had invested in him the way that his Northwestern instructors have.
Through his classes, Boyd learned that the environment he grew up in did not come about by accident. Society is crafted in a way that keeps people with low-economic status at the bottom, he said. He is now trying to figure out how to get a master’s degree in psychology, a subject about which he is passionate.
“If you understand how people think there’s no situation you don’t know how to navigate,” he said.
For some Northwestern students, freedom is not on the horizon.
James Soto, 59, is sentenced to life in prison with no parole after being convicted of two murders in 1981. For the last 35 years of his incarceration, Soto has been teaching himself to become a lawyer, and he hopes to receive a law degree.
Soto said as a child his mother used to tell him, “Education is the great equalizer.” At the time he didn’t know what that meant, but Soto said he understands now.
He and other students feel immensely proud and privileged to be Northwestern students. Since becoming a student, Green said he has started keeping up with Northwestern sports teams. “I’m a wildcat for life,” he said.
Said Lackey of the students: “These are among the most courageous and inspiring students I have ever had the privilege of teaching in my 20 years as a professor.”
More comments from graduates of the program: