When Ralph Gray transferred from one prison in Illinois to another, he didn’t know the move would mean sacrificing access to an education.
Gray guessed he was 16 credits shy of receiving an associate degree from Lake Land College, a community college that offers classes in several prisons in Illinois, when he left Western Illinois Correctional Center, a medium-security facility located between Springfield and Quincy.
When he arrived at Graham Correctional Center in southern Illinois several years ago, Gray said he was told he’d be placed at the end of the waitlist for an auto body course. The class was the reason he requested a transfer. Gray said he's still on the waitlist.
Gray isn’t the only person incarcerated in Illinois prisons unable to further his education. A lack of teachers, funding and the department’s own policies prevent many from obtaining a GED, an associate degree or a trade skill.
An Illinois Department of Corrections policy stipulates that once a class is full, inmates are placed on the waiting list in order of their release date, with those getting out soonest receiving priority.
IDOC officials said the policy was changed in June 2013. Previously, prisoners were placed on the waiting list in ascending order based on the date they requested access to the educational program or course. Gray’s projected parole date is January 2029.
Despite the fact that inmates like Gray remain shut out of educational programming by the policy, IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess said the department does not plan to change it.
“Given our limited resources, we must prioritize educational programming for men and women reentering their communities first,” Hess wrote in an email.
Access to education in IDOC facilities is low. In fiscal 2018, which runs from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, 723 inmates received a GED, and 168 received an associate degree, according to department data. That same year, IDOC held more than 15,000 inmates without a high school diploma and more than 18,000 without a college degree, department data shows.
A lack of opportunity
Illinois Department of Corrections Director Rob Jeffreys attributes low attainment numbers to a lack of teachers and a lack of funding in the corrections and community college system, as well as the geographic location of many of Illinois’ prisons.
In fiscal 2018, the department employed 119 educators in a prison system with roughly 40,000 inmates. The number of educators in the system rose slightly to 124 in fiscal 2019, according to IDOC data.
Jeffreys said it’s more difficult to recruit educators in rural areas, leading to a concentration of educational opportunities in prisons located near urban centers. For example, DePaul University, North Park University and Northwestern University operate privately funded educational programs inside Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility located just outside Chicago.
Including Stateville, only three of the system’s 28 prisons offer credit-bearing courses above the associate degree level. Those programs, which are located in Stateville, Sheridan and Danville correctional centers, are operated by colleges and universities. Two prisons, Pontiac and Menard correctional centers, offer neither post-secondary nor vocational programming. The remaining 26 facilities have some vocational courses, but whether they offer associate degree classes depends on if the community college that works inside the prison can pay for and hire an adjunct professor to teach in the facility, prison officials said.
“When you talk about the Chicago area, I mean, we have all types of facilities up there to provide programming,” Jeffreys said. “But when we start talking about … the southern part of Illinois, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to provide secondary education in those particular facilities.”
Hess wrote in an email that Jeffreys is “primarily focused on expanding educational programming in facilities in downstate Illinois.”
Funding is also an obstacle.
The department contracts with community colleges to provide vocational programs inside state prisons, while community colleges are responsible for the cost of academic post-secondary programming, for which they receive reimbursement from the Illinois Community College Board.
But state investment in community colleges has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, according to data from the state’s community college board.
In fiscal 2000, state funding accounted for about a third of community college revenue. In fiscal 2017, state funding made up about 15% of community college funding. Adjusted for inflation, the state invested about half as much in Illinois’ community college system in fiscal 2019 as compared to fiscal 2002.
In the absence of increased investment, community colleges have increasingly relied on local tax dollars and tuition. Matt Berry, a spokesperson for ICCB, said incarcerated students rarely pay tuition.
“The colleges are able to claim these students for ICCB reimbursement, but … the funding formula is significantly underfunded,” Berry wrote in an email. Offering more courses inside state prisons would not necessarily lead to more revenue, given that the amount of state funding available to community colleges is “a finite pot of resources,” Berry wrote.
Trading educational opportunities for better living conditions
Gray said he understands that the money available for education in state prisons is limited. But he thinks the current policy, which prioritizes those with shorter sentences for programming, is unfair to people like him.
Gray grew up in Champaign, and he was sent to prison in 2012 shortly after he turned 18. He was sentenced to 20 years after he pleaded guilty to the aggravated kidnapping of an Australian researcher who was visiting the University of Illinois during the fall of 2011. Gray is now 25.
Truth-in-sentencing laws dictate that Gray must serve the majority of his sentence, which means he’s also not eligible to receive “good time” — time cut from his sentence — for participation in correctional department programs.
During his first few months in prison, Gray said he acted out, largely because he was still processing the length of time he had to serve. But then, he said, he had an epiphany.
“I was really determined to, you know, kind of get on the right track, and I never lost sight of wanting to go home,” he said. A big part of getting on track for Gray meant getting an education. He requested a transfer to Western Illinois from Menard Correctional Center because Lakeland College offered classes there.
“I gained a lot of college courses. I took almost every business course that they had there,” Gray said. He said he was able to get into the courses because many of the inmates at Western Illinois were serving similarly long sentences.
“One thing about Western [Illinois] Correctional, your living conditions were bad, but they made sure that everybody has the opportunity to get into school,” he said.
At Western Illinois, Gray said he could only leave his cell for about an hour and a half each day. He decided to request another transfer, partly because he wanted a better quality of life, but also because he wanted to take an auto body course.
“Because when you think about it, an incarcerated person, a person with a felony is fighting with a lower chance for a job compared to a person that doesn’t,” Gray said. “But if you take a guy that’s been incarcerated, and you give him a skillset that he can learn, he can take that to the street with him when he’s released.” Graham Correctional offered an auto body class, and Gray thought that developing those skills would make him a more attractive candidate to a future employer.
What he didn’t realize, he said, is that leaving Western Illinois for Graham, a lower-security facility located between Springfield and St. Louis, would mean he’d lose access to all in-person educational programs.
“A lot of guys are sacrificing leaving prisons that are worse living conditions to come here, and, you know, they’re leaving their educational classes and all that stuff. They’re not realizing that when you get to these lower-level prisons, that you’re not going to be able to obtain courses and classes,” Gray said. “So that pretty much exiles us from gaining educational programming in certain facilities, which doesn’t seem right.”
Few states have succeeded in recent years to pass legislation aimed at increasing access to post-secondary programming in prisons. California is an exception.
California went from offering face-to-face college classes inside only two state prisons to having community college classes and teachers in 34 of the state’s 35 correctional facilities in a five-year span.
The change occurred as a result of legislation passed in 2014, which allowed educators to teach classes inside correctional facilities and provided a mechanism for which community colleges could receive reimbursement for those classes from the state.
In 2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown approved a budget that allocated $5 million to the state’s community colleges serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. Now, people incarcerated in state prisons can earn college credits and associate degrees that are fully transferable to public universities in the state, said Brant Choate, who directs the division of rehabilitative programs in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Choate said there’s a financial incentive for community colleges to participate in prison programming.
“Some of the colleges in remote areas have seen this as an opportunity to increase their enrollment,” he said. “But I think more so, and I can only tell you this anecdotally from what I’ve seen … there’s this feeling of social justice.”
Choate said stakeholders, including prison officials and college educators, have benefitted from the arrangement. He said that educators have realized the environment may be safer than they previously thought, and that the students are extremely engaged.
“Many of our students are actually receiving honors,” Choate said. “And it’s very exciting to see that, and word spreads amongst community college faculty where, in many cases, that’s where everybody wants to teach.”
Choate said the increase in educational access has also led to improvements in the workplace for prison personnel.
“It’s almost like a conversion of one officer at a time,” he said. “They attend the graduation, they see the behavior change on the yard, they see an attitude change in the inmates … and that just makes it a better work environment.”
Unlike IDOC, Choate said the department allows anyone who wants to to access college programming, including those with life sentences.
“We view them as human beings and people that deserve an education, but at the same time, those people who know that they’re never going to leave prison — they’re some of our best instructors on the inside,” he said.
Choate said incarcerated scholars have served as mentors and tutors to other inmates, and as role models for those just entering the prison system.
“It changes them from essentially criminals to academics,” Choate said. “People are huddled around the domino table now talking about the most recent classic literature piece they’ve read, as opposed to talking about how they’re going to get in trouble because they’re bored.”
Choate said the dramatic change in access to education in California prisons came in large part from buy-in both at the correctional and community college system levels, as well as state lawmakers.
He said he’s “very aware” of what kind of programming other state prisons offer incarcerated people.
“The key difference is that we have support from our Legislature, and California has decided to make this a priority and fund it,” Choate said. “Funding is the biggest barrier for all the other states, so they’re reliant upon private foundations to fund college, and that’s the main difference.”
The cost of an education in prison
While funding remains a barrier in Illinois, the state may actually save money if it were to implement broader access to educational opportunities inside its prisons, according to research from the Rand Corp. A meta-analysis from the nonprofit policy think tank found that people who participated in educational opportunities while incarcerated were 43% less likely to recidivate than those who did not. Additionally, the report states that for every dollar prison systems spend on education, they’ll realize $5 in savings due to reduced recidivism rates.
A 2018 report from the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimates that 43% of those who are released from state prison will return within three years. The report also estimates that recidivism related costs to victims and taxpayers will total $13 billion over the next half-decade.
State analyses indicate that educational programming in prison settings saves money. A 2018 report from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget predicted that vocational, adult basic education and post-secondary education would reduce recidivism, with post-secondary education yielding the greatest benefit to cost ratio of nearly $39 in savings for Illinois taxpayers and crime victims for every dollar spent on it.
Illinois state Rep. Mary Flowers, a Democrat who represents parts of the south and west sides of Chicago, filed legislation in 2017 that would have mandated educational and vocational programming in all of Illinois’ adult and juvenile prisons. The measure died in committee.
She said she filed the bill because she wanted to see something done to address recidivism in the state.
“The vast majority of the people that are incarcerated come from the minority districts, and so they really come back to my area,” Flowers said. “And as a result of them not being educated, not having health care, not having job training, it’s really a double or triple whammy on the community, because you could guarantee that someone’s going to get hurt, you can guarantee that there will be recidivism, you can guarantee that it will be an extra cost on the taxpayers.”
A fiscal note provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections stated that Flowers’ proposed legislation would cost the department more than $380 million over 10 years. Flowers said she was told that the bill failed due to its projected cost.
But she believes the price of not educating the state’s prison population will ultimately cost taxpayers more. “If they really want to do a fiscal note, how much money we have paid out for false incarceration, or how much money we have paid out for recidivism, it would way surpass this $380 million. It was really insulting to me,” she said.
Flowers said she plans to reintroduce similar legislation this year.
“There’s fewer people incarcerated now, so I would like to see how much they say it would cost,” she said. “And I always like to ask the question: ‘How much will it cost if we don’t do it?’ But I never get an answer.”
Gray said he worries about his lack of access to an education largely because of his family. He said he’s a father, and he looks forward to supporting his family when he returns home from prison. He said he’s heard that the administration at Graham Correctional Center, where he’s located now, may implement a baking class. Gray said he hopes that’s true.
“Because anything that I can take educational wise, I will take because I know it’s important, and it’s detrimental to my future if I don’t have them courses,” he said.
Gray said he’s looking into correspondence courses, which his family will have to pay for, to access the education he believes he needs.
“My family has been very big in helping me, and without them I would not be able to do them classes,” Gray said.
A spokesperson for Illinois’ prison system wrote in an email that agency officials are trying to increase educational opportunities for incarcerated people, including building partnerships with public and private colleges and universities. In an interview last fall, Jeffreys also said the department planned to hire a vocational coordinator, and he hoped to bring people from local trade unions into the prison to serve as teachers.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for IDOC wrote: “Director Jeffreys and IDOC’s programming staff are reviewing educational programming in other states and how those programs are funded. We are actively seeking additional partners and working to expand programs currently in place. ”
The funding stream — regardless of educational partnerships — for the Illinois prison system is controlled by the state’s General Assembly. Choate, with California’s correctional system, said that’s the case in that state, too. He said political support was needed to expand educational programming in California’s prisons.
“I mean, it needs to come from the people that are in charge of the money,” Choate said. “And if you convince your Legislature — and it’s always helpful to also have your governor’s office and the governor, him or herself, be behind it — but once you have that support, then it’s just a matter of, in our case, crafting the bill to make sure that everybody was happy with it, so it could pass. And that’s what happened with us.”
Lee V. Gaines is a reporter with the Illinois Newsroom, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeVGaines
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