Northwestern Prison Education Program

Pursuing a liberal arts education behind bars — during a pandemic

Two years ago, philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey launched the Northwestern Prison Education Project. The initiative combats recidivism by providing a liberal arts education to incarcerated students at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Crest Hill, Ill.

Until March, Lackey and other Northwestern professors traveled to Stateville each week to teach classes in chemistry, math, legal studies and other topics. The students could apply the credits they earned for those courses toward an associate’s degree in general studies. Research shows that simply earning that degree lowers the likelihood that participants will commit future punishable offenses by 52 percent.

But the in-person lessons came to an abrupt halt several months ago, when the fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic forced the Stateville to go on lockdown. With hundreds of inmates diagnosed with the virus, the program switched gears.

Volunteers for the program began to travel to the prison regularly to deliver course materials for the classes, which continued through written correspondence. Volunteers also delivered care packages for the students, sharing letters of support and reading material from the Northwestern community.

They also raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the NPEP students, purchasing hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer, soap, surgical masks and gloves to Stateville and Cook County Jail.

“My education means everything to me,” says NPEP student Benard McKinley. “I’m glad that this pandemic can’t stop me from continuing my education.”

Learn more about Northwestern Prison Education Project and how it has responded to the pandemic in Northwestern Magazine.