Lockdowns and transfers have disrupted college classes for students at this Illinois prison

Sarah-Ji / Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project

Students applauding graduate and speaker Reginald BoClair at the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls 2022 graduation at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Oct. 22.

When Devon Terrell first came to Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet in 2008 to serve a life sentence, he was told that college classes were out of reach for him.

“The rationale was, if I was to never get out of prison, what was the use of educating me?” he said through the prison’s email system.

But he knew that if he was ever to be granted executive clemency — likely his only chance of getting out — he needed to show that he had been rehabilitated. And education is key to doing that.

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He finally got his chance in 2011, when the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP) began offering humanities courses at Stateville and eventually set up a degree program with Northeastern Illinois University. In 2019, Terrell earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in Poetic Justice in Black Culture. After graduating, he pushed unsuccessfully for Northeastern to create a master’s program at Stateville, served as a teaching assistant for other students, and continued taking noncredit courses through PNAP.

“I was blessed to be surrounded and loved by people who I felt really cared for me and wanted to see me succeed as I did them,” he said.

But his access to education stopped suddenly in August, when he was transferred without warning to Sheridan Correctional Center, about 30 miles west of Stateville.

“With me and like most people who got shipped prior, staff came around, told (us) to pack up and that (we) would be transferred. There was no reason given, no appeal process, and if you refused, you’d be disciplined,” Terrell said.

From May 2021 to October of this year, prison officials transferred nearly 400 people out of Stateville’s general population. At least 60 of the transfers were enrolled in college courses through PNAP, according to the programming coordinator. Those students, including Terrell, have now lost their access to postsecondary education.

The transfers have come at a time of uncertainty and confusion at Stateville, where the population has been cut in half in recent years, as the Illinois Department of Corrections plans to turn part of the facility into a special reentry program. In October, nearly all of the 500 or so people who were still incarcerated at Stateville were moved to a nearby facility for at least two weeks due to water issues — which have plagued the nearly 100-year-old prison for years — leading to rumors that the prison might eventually be closed.

As the closest prison to Chicago — less than 40 miles from the Loop — Stateville has by far the most college programming of all Illinois prisons, with four colleges serving about 300 students a year. The recent transfers, along with staffing shortages and frequent lockdowns, have been especially disruptive to postsecondary programming, which research shows reduces recidivism, increases post-release employment, and even increases college attainment for the children of incarcerated people.

The changes at Stateville come as college-in-prison programs were just beginning to regain momentum after the Covid-19 pandemic stopped many programs in their tracks, and as new state and federal laws are going into effect that aim to make accessing college classes easier for incarcerated people.

“The logistics and coordination that are associated with running our bachelor’s degree program are intense,” said Timmy Châu, managing director of PNAP, which is based in Chicago. “All of that becomes much harder if we’re trying to do it at a facility that’s several hours away.”

A college graduate in a dark blue graduation gown and cap holds a diploma and smailes at the camera.

Grant Omohundro / Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project

Devon Terrell holding his diploma at the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls graduation ceremony at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, May 15, 2019.

Naomi Puzzello, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, did not respond to specific questions about the reasons for the transfers or their effects on college programs at Stateville. But she noted that other prisons have vocational training that can be applied toward an associate degree.

When he was transferred out of Stateville, Terrell was enrolled in a class called “Reading and writing short poems.”

“There were students that took half (of our class over the summer), and then were transferred out,” Châu said. “So it’s extremely destabilizing and harmful to our students.”

Cean Gamalinda, programming coordinator for PNAP, said the program lost 61 students — about one-third of their total enrollment in degree and non-degree classes — since the spring semester. Most of the students, like Terrell, were transferred out in August.

Administrators of two of the other college programs at Stateville, run by Northwestern and North Park universities, did not respond to questions about how many of their students have been transferred out.

Châu said it takes added time and coordination with multiple wardens and administrators at other prisons for PNAP to send class materials and readings to transferred students.

Changes at Stateville leave staff and students in the dark

The Stateville population has dropped by more than half in just two years, according to state Department of Corrections data. As of Aug. 31, 540 people were incarcerated there, down from more than 1,100 in August 2020. Part of it can be attributed to a reduced prison population statewide, but a significant factor has been the transfers out of the facility.

“(The population drop is) extremely visible,” said Joseph Dole, another graduate of PNAP’s program at Stateville, in an email. “When I got here in 2012, there were like 1,800 guys in a half-dozen cell houses. Now there are less than 500.”

A line chart showing the quarterly population at Stateville prison dropped from 1,153 in August 2019 to 540 in August 2022.

Dole said people in college-degree programs are — informally, at least — supposed to be protected from transfer so they can finish their coursework, but that hasn’t happened.

“Guys in degree-granting programs and some others are supposed to have holds (on their transfer), but often they get put on the transfer list,” Dole said. “Some are able to stop the transfer in time, others can’t and then can’t get back.”

Puzzello said “there are no educational holds” but that staff are supposed to consider whether someone is enrolled in programming when determining whether to transfer them.

Ralph Portwood, state sector executive vice president of AFSCME Local 31, the union that represents Stateville employees, said staff had been told the transfers were part of Stateville’s transition to a mixed-security facility and the opening of the Stateville reentry program.

It’s unclear when the program was first announced internally, but Châu said program providers were notified of the transition in the summer of last year. The department has not publicly announced the program, and Puzzello did not respond to questions about it.

Portwood said even staff have been kept in the dark about many of the program’s details. He said prison officials said they would empty one cell house, do repairs, and then open it back up for the new program. However, he said the first cell house that was supposed to be repaired has been closed for about a year, and he said there are people who have been accepted into the program but are still awaiting transfer to Stateville.

Prison procedures, pandemic have interfered with postsecondary programming

A graduation gown hangs inside a prison cell, with a graduation cap on the bed.

Even before he was transferred out of Stateville, Terrell said taking college classes in the restrictive environment of prison was no easy task.

Terrell said students would be made to choose between classes and outdoor recreation, showers, or even lunch.

“Recreation wouldn’t be made up at a later time or another day. Showers wouldn’t be made up, and if you missed lunch, you wouldn’t be fed,” Terrell said.

He also said the department wouldn’t modify its policies about the amount and types of material allowed in cells to accommodate students’ needs.

“The books instructors would give us, course readers, secondary sources, and personal legal materials would place us outside the bounds of cell compliance. An officer would either damage, confiscate, force us to get rid of, or write a citation for not being in compliance,” Terrell said.

All of that was before the pandemic hit and visitors were barred from entering Stateville for nearly two years.

Many higher education programs simply suspended classes during the first years of the pandemic. According to a recent report, just 640 incarcerated people in Illinois participated in postsecondary programming in the 2020-2021 school year, down from 3,409 people the year before.

Vickie Reddy, program director of North Park University’s School of Restorative Arts, said classes during the pandemic could only be offered through correspondence, which she said “stole momentum” from the program.

“Pre-Covid, we would have a lot of instructors coming in, a lot of volunteers coming in, and this real community being built between the inside and outside,” Reddy said. “And then Covid stopped that. So now, (we’re) just trying to rebuild.”

Then, as teachers and volunteers started being allowed back into the prison in March, they were stymied by another barrier: persistent lockdowns.

From May to August, there were 29 lockdowns at Stateville, according to department data provided in response to a records request, with 27 noted as being due to staffing shortages. Department data posted online show a sharp increase in the number of lockdown days this summer, even though the number of guards at the prison has been steady since the beginning of the year.

During a lockdown, faculty members or coordinators are often unable to enter the facility, which means classes are canceled.

Châu said that most classes in PNAP’s programs only meet once a week, so a lockdown on that day may mean students miss an entire week of instruction.

“It takes a lot of extra labor to coordinate making up that time,” said Châu. “Sometimes we have to do extra correspondence coordination, which means printing out and delivering hundreds of handouts and lecture notes — it’s extremely inefficient. These disruptions really run counter to IDOC’s claim that they support educational programs like ours.”

The future of postsecondary education in Illinois prisons

Grant Omohundro

Graduates from the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls 2019 graduation ceremony at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, May 15, 2019.

The changes coming to Stateville are creating uncertainty and confusion for students and educational providers just as federal and state lawmakers are trying to increase access to college education in prisons.

In December 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which restored access to Pell grants for people in prison, reversing a 26-year ban sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden during the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s. The law is expected to significantly increase the number of students in college programs behind bars when it goes into effect next year.

Last year, the Illinois General Assembly created the Illinois Higher Education in Prison Task Force to analyze the current state of higher educational programs for incarcerated people and “recommend a legislative action plan to expand access.” The task force issued its report last month, which found that fewer than 3% of people in Illinois prisons were enrolled in a college program last year and only six of the state’s 28 prisons offer non-vocational higher education programming.

Just before the task force report was released, the Illinois Department of Corrections announced a new administrative directive for postsecondary programming, which promises increased collaboration and support from the department for credit-bearing college programs.

It outlines how department and facility administrators will help coordinate college programs, including creating a procedure for “timely review of course materials” and a formal complaint process if the department rejects course materials or removes a student from a class. The overarching goal of the directive is to “establish consistent, predictable, and high-quality postsecondary education across custody levels and throughout the state.”

But the transfers and other issues at Stateville have made programming there anything but consistent or predictable, according to students and program administrators. PNAP’s classes were canceled on Oct. 29 for nearly two weeks after the water issues forced the department to transfer most people out of Stateville. Châu also said that he has not received any communication from the department about how the new directive will be implemented.

Puzzello, the department spokesperson, wrote in an email that “​​IDOC is currently working on the logistics of this newly established administrative directive and will have ongoing communication with programming partners.”

Puzzello did not answer questions about when the Stateville reentry program will open or what the requirements will be for eligibility. But other similar programs in the state are available only to people with five or less years left on their sentences.

Both PNAP and North Park’s programs have focused on serving people with longer sentences, for whom college classes weren’t previously available. Until now, North Park’s School of Restorative Arts program only admitted people with at least 15 years left on their sentences. Reddy said North Park will either have to reconsider this requirement or consider working out of another facility.

“It may well shift who we serve at Stateville and how we do things,” she said.

Châu and Reddy said the new reentry program could open up college programming to a new population of people at Stateville, but they worry that people like Terrell, with long or life sentences, will lose access to higher education.

For Terrell, getting transferred out of Stateville meant not only losing his college classes, but also the community that supported him and believed in him.

“What I miss about Stateville is my friends who became like family,” he said in an email. “I miss the beautiful people that took time out of their life to come inside the prison and bring color and shine light in that dark and dreadful place. I miss all the opportunities that were made available for me to grow as a person and help me showcase my humanity. I miss the men who became my brothers that helped nurture and assist me with genuine love and the comrades who I stood beside to help right the wrongs of injustice.”

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