Recently, we discussed the positive role liberal arts education has in prisons. Today, we take a closer look at the Northwestern Prison Education Program, which provides tuition-free liberal arts degrees to inmates in Illinois Stateville Correctional Center (SCC).
Northwestern launched as an institution for higher learning in 1855. Five years prior, nine men sat down together to plan a university to serve the nation’s Northwest region. In 1853 the men were able to purchase land for the first campus. Since that humble start, Northwestern has grown to 12 schools and colleges.
Recently, Northwestern teamed up with the Illinois Department of Correction (IDOC) to provide inmates at SCC the change to earn a liberal arts degree while incarcerated. It’s called the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP), and while it’s not the first education-focused program implemented by IDOC, it is the first one that can result in a degree.
The inmates eligible to take the NPEP must already have a high school diploma or a GED. The free tuition is provided by Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies (NSPS). Successful students may also receive reduced time behind bars.
The NSPS has more than 80 years as part of Northwestern’s overall educational vision. Its mission to provide innovative learning opportunities delivered via a flexible medium and through a faculty that has hands-on industry experience makes the NSPS a natural fit for delivering the NPEP.
In early November the university’s publication, North by Northwestern, ran an article on the new NPEP program, which included a statement from the program’s director, Jennifer Lackey. In addition to her work with the NPEP, Lackey is a philosophy professor at Northwestern and has taught non-credit classes in SCC for several years.
Professor Lackey cited, “The classroom is absolutely transformative for these students. They come in identified by cell house and prison ID number, but in here it’s just Robert, just Tyrone. They learn how to develop their own perspectives and how to listen to each other.”
As with most liberal arts degrees, the focus is on learning how to think about thinking – skills every inmate needs to have. Being able to analyze thought, come to focused and factual conclusions, and seeing the world through a myriad of perspectives helps inmates with their personal and professional development while incarcerated and after release.
In fact, the first course the NPEP is offering in SCC is “The Sociology of Chicago.” Mary Pattillo, a sociology professor, teaches this course on campus and in SCC, and she’s determined to encourage all her students to think about thinking.
“Things that we think we understand… we want to make those things strange, meaning what we think is common sense, we want to complicate that,” Professor Pattillo said.
According to Professor Lackey, the inmates at SCC need “a chance.” The NPEP program is a chance to help the inmates better understand the world, themselves, and how they can fit into the bigger picture in a positive, productive way.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.