Skip to content Skip to footer

A Plea From Inside: Prisons Must Offer College Classes

Currently incarcerated writer Joseph Dole calls on prison officials to recognize the clear-cut benefits of educating prisoners.

Both the Illinois Constitution and the Illinois Code of Corrections provide that one objective of criminal sentencing is to offer individuals a chance for rehabilitation, in order to be able to better participate in society upon exiting prison. Unfortunately, words mean little on paper if not actually enforced. The state legislature, judges and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) have all disregarded the objective of rehabilitation. The legislature has authorized the death penalty (now abolished due to mismanagement), life-without-parole sentences, gun enhancements and other mandatory minimum sentences that combine to deny even some juveniles any chance of regaining their freedom. The state’s approach to education within prisons has similarly discarded any semblance of a commitment to “rehabilitation.”

College courses for people in Illinois prisons are necessary not only to follow the state Constitution, but also to protect the wellbeing of incarcerated people and the rest of society.

The Decline of College Courses in Prison

Many states have abandoned even their minimal efforts to offer college courses in prison. Illinois is a case in point. Many years ago, nearly every Illinois prison had modest college programs. The students enrolled in them were consequently much less likely to return to prison. The Chicago Sun-Times reported on December 12, 2001 that “graduates of Roosevelt University’s program in the IDOC have a 4.6 percent recidivism rate, compared with the state’s overall recidivism rate of 46 percent.”

Nevertheless, in the frenzy of tough-on-crime rhetoric in 1994, the federal government stripped Pell Grant eligibility from all prisoners, which decimated prison college programs across the country, reducing them from 350 down to eight in just three years. After Pell Grants disappeared, college programs in Illinois’ maximum security prisons completely vanished, and with them went nearly all vocational courses as well. By 2010, the John Howard Association, an independent monitor of Illinois prisons would report that:

For much of the past decade, Illinois has allowed its prison vocational and academic programs to whither away. Education protects the public from crime. It reduces recidivism, minimizing the financial and social costs of crime. Unless state government finds money to finance the community colleges, prison educational programs are certain to continue shrinking and the public will be the victim.

Obstructions to Education Programs

In 2015, there were still no accredited college classes available to the thousands of men and women in Illinois’ maximum security prisons. The IDOC administration claimed it had no money for programs. If funding were the sole impediment, one would think prison wardens would welcome universities and professors willing to volunteer their time, raise money and establish programs for free. Instead, the IDOC administration impedes any expansion of even the meager non-accredited programs at Stateville Correctional Center, where I am currently incarcerated. Moreover, they allow IDOC staff to harass all involved to discourage professors from volunteering and students from enrolling.

Here at Stateville, students’ class material and projects are routinely destroyed or thrown out during shakedowns. Final projects are often confiscated. Graduations are frequently cancelled without explanation and not rescheduled. Teachers are routinely treated like suspects. Many have been arbitrarily banned from Stateville after being falsely accused of misconduct as a pretense to cancel courses or in an attempt to cancel an entire program.

The Benefits of Prison Educational Programs

Supporting college and vocational programs means standing by our proclaimed ideals that everyone deserves a second chance, that people can change and that people should be able to pursue the “American Dream” of rising up out of poverty.

College courses are a clear-cut way to make it more likely that people will find a job or educational path upon leaving prison. Of course, these things make it less likely that they’ll return to prison in the future. The Alabama State Board of Education found that, “Correctional education appears to be the number one factor in reducing the recidivism rates nationwide.” Those who completed post-secondary degrees in prison in Alabama had only a 1 percent recidivism rate compared to 35 percent for the general population. In Maryland, 46 percent of people “returned to prison within three years, but out of the 120 who left after receiving a college degree while inside, not a single one returned.” James Gilligan found similar results when looking at the issue in Massachusetts: “The most successful program of all, and the only one that had been 100 percent effective in preventing recidivism was the program that allowed inmates to receive a college degree while in prison.”

While college courses in prison reduce recidivism — and therefore, ultimately, crime — the denial of an education in prisons does the opposite for a couple of reasons. First, it sends a message that, despite the state constitution, laws and rhetoric about rehabilitation and second chances, people in prison are not worth the “expense” of being given a chance to succeed upon leaving prison. This gives us less incentive to act in society’s best interest upon release. Ostracize people and they won’t want to join you. If society treats people like garbage, then we can hardly expect them to act like angels.

Second, the denial of education increases the likelihood that people released from prison will need to commit crimes in order to survive. After all, they have just been warehoused and kept impoverished for years or decades with no opportunity to gain any employable skills.

College courses would also greatly increase institutional security. Those who take classes in the current, non-accredited program at Stateville refrain from committing serious rule infractions because they want to remain in the program.

Finally, even if someone is never going to be released from prison, he or she should still have the opportunity to lead a productive, goal-oriented life inside of prison. Those serving long sentences at Stateville have very few intellectual or creative outlets. They shouldn’t be forced to spend 22 hours per day in a cell with little to do for decades on end. Prisoners who aren’t able to take classes are more angry, frustrated and more likely to act violently toward themselves and others than those receiving an education.

Additionally, there is a monetary return on investment. The John Howard Association found that academic programs save the state more than they cost.

A Moral Obligation

Society also has a moral obligation to give people in prison opportunities that will help them support themselves upon leaving.

It’s important to understand that those in prison are victims of an unjust society. Not only are many incarcerated people victims of racist sentencing laws, prosecutors and judges, but many are innocent of the charges — victims of out of control police forces like the Chicago Police Department, which routinely hides exonerating evidence, fabricates both evidence and charges, tortures people into falsely confessing, and more.

The vast majority of incarcerated people also come from impoverished areas. For various reasons, this greatly increased the likelihood that they will come into contact with the criminal justice system. If there is one overwhelming theme in the majority of studies concerning criminality, it is that almost every factor disproportionately affects the poor. Impoverished people are obviously not inherently more “evil” than the rich or middle class; rather they are subjected to more environmental factors which increase someone’s likelihood of committing a crime. Many factors — from the quality of food, to exposure to pollution, to education level, to employment (or unemployment), to access to treatment for mental illness — affect someone’s likelihood of breaking the law.

Schools in impoverished neighborhoods are usually the poorest performing schools. They have the scarcest resources are less likely to draw quality teachers. Graduation rates at high schools are often below 50 percent. Uneducated people are exceedingly susceptible to becoming incarcerated, especially when they are pushed out of the job market in tough economic times. This helps to explain why 19 percent of people entering prison are completely illiterate and 40 percent are functionally illiterate. Moreover, 70 percent have not completed high school.

Meanwhile, the US has shuttered many of its mental health facilities, and has now essentially criminalized being mentally ill. Poor people are the least likely to have access to mental health treatment, as they are the least able to afford it. Currently, 56 percent of the US prison population has a mental health problem.

The Cases of Stateville and Menard

The only two remaining maximum security men’s prisons in Illinois that house general population prisoners are the Menard and Stateville Correctional Centers. In 2010, the John Howard Association reported that with no programs, people in Menard were simply being “warehoused.” On the other hand, while programs in Stateville were severely lacking, the administration did allow some volunteers to come in and offer non-accredited college-level classes.

Since the program began, Stateville has had relatively few staff assaults, and lockdowns are short. Meanwhile at Menard, violence has increased. It has gotten so bad that the chaplain began preaching from behind a razor-wire-topped fence, and guards hide in protective cages in the chow hall, law library and elsewhere.

In 2006, as part of the “Campaign for Responsible Priorities,” the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) guards’ union lambasted the IDOC in a report titled “Failing Grade: The Decline in Educational Opportunities for Illinois Inmates.” AFSCME argued that such a decline makes both prisons and society less safe. After the explosion of violence at Menard, the administration in 2014 finally started bringing back some of the abandoned programs.


In recent years, both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former President Barack Obama have made headlines with their remarks advocating for free community college education for all. It is imperative that “all” includes incarcerated people as well.

This article was delivered by the author over a paid telephone call at a conference at Villanova University, “Philosophies of Incarceration and the Incarceration of Philosophy” (March 2017), co-organized by Morey Williams and Miranda Pilipchuk. The piece was originally written for a creative writing course at Stateville taught by Andrew Mckenna.

A longer version of this article with sources can be found at the Real Cost of Prisons website.