Illinois Correctional System: What Is It Really?

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The Public i is partnering with the Education Justice Project (EJP) to share writing completed by incarcerated students at the Danville Correctional Center. The EJP is a comprehensive college-in-prison program based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Through its educational programming EJP enriches the lives of its students, their families, and the communities to which they return.

Before entering the penal system in Illinois, it was my understanding that the correctional system was to provide assistance for a person to become a productive member of society after they completed their sentence. The penal system is designed to protect society from lawbreakers while attempting to change their behavior that goes against the norms of society. I was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 45 years. This showed me firsthand just how wrong my initial assumption was. The limitations put in place by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) can be prohibitive to creating behavioral change. I started my sentence at Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility built in the late 19th century, with updates to add more housing units in the 1980s. Other modifications included taking a cell designed for one person and adding a second bunk to put two people in it.

At Menard, there were only classes for Adult Basic Education (ABE)- and General Education Diploma (GED)-eligible individuals. There were no vocational nor higher-education classes. A person could get hands-on training per se, through obtaining a job with plumbing, electrical, or laundry services, or in industry. Granted that the majority of individuals sent to Menard have life sentences, they should still have the opportunity to better themselves. Appeals could lead to a release or a sentence reduction. A sentence should not be the determining factor in improving themselves, because the mission statement of the IDOC is to provide everyone a path to rehabilitation. My time spent at Menard was short, compared to others I met there. One individual named Cherokee resided at Menard for thirty years, and he told me, “In all my years here at Menard I have worked in the kitchen, commissary, and industry, but I have never been able to attend a higher-education program. It has not been offered here and at 65 I may not want to; if offered years ago, maybe I would have.”

After spending three years at Menard, I was transferred to Western Illinois Correctional Center. This facility is located in the west-central part of the state, near Quincy. Western is a medium-/maximum-security facility with 17 buildings on approximately 85 acres. It is an 1800-bed facility with living units consisting of four X-type housing units, one receiving unit, one segregation unit, and a fifteen-bed health-care unit. A twelve-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and a gate to prevent free-flow movement surround each X-type unit. There is also a gun tower in the area between Housing Unit 2 and the primary dietary, commissary, and barbershop building. This facility offered classes from the local community college, vocational training in horticulture, culinary arts, automotive, plumbing, carpentry, and electrical. There was also an industry building where inmates with less than five years left on their sentences earned minimum wage while working. The industry building processed chicken into chicken patties and nuggets for the prison facilities. Western took rehabilitation seriously: inmates who resided there could learn a viable trade prior to completing their sentence. Some might even finish an associate’s degree. I received a Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) three years after the start of my incarceration. This test determines if you qualify for ABE or GED classes, but having achieved a bachelor’s degree, this seemed pointless for me. However, every incoming inmate must take this placement test. This test also affects a person’s pay rate. Participation in any of these programs affects the remainder of a person’s sentence; individuals that attend GED classes qualify for good-behavior time. This equates to a reduction in time to serve. For classes one must have between two to five years remaining, and for the industry building, a five-year minimum. There was a waiting list for GED classes of over 300 individuals. During the eighteen months I spent at Western, I was never able to attend a college class, due to already having a degree, nor was I able to get a job, due to the length of my sentence. However, I could attend bible studies and bible programs, which I took full advantage of.

This brings us to my current residence at Danville Correctional Center. This facility is located in the east-central part of the state near the city of Danville. Danville is a medium-security facility with seventeen buildings on approximately 85 acres as well. It is similar to Western, with the exception of having fencing around each building. The school building offers ABE/GED classes along with classes from Divine Hope Bible College, Danville Community College (DACC), Eastern Illinois University (EIU), and the University of Illinois (UI). There are also horticulture, carpentry, and automotive classrooms. This site also contains an industry building. It is at Danville where I was able to access higher education classes through the UI Education Justice Project (EJP). These classes are upper-level graduate courses but without a degree program. EIU offers a bachelor’s degree program and DACC offers an associate’s degree program. The same issues apply here in Danville: there is a backlog of applicants to get into the GED programs, and the community college has a waiting list. EIU and UI have entrance requirements; EIU requires 60 hours of college-level credits and UI requires 40 credit hours.

As a member of the EJP program, I have been able to attend science workshops, writing workshops, and programming labs for the past two years. Attending classes does a great deal for one’s mental health. You get to feel like a regular person, not just a criminal locked away for a crime. The whole idea of justice reform should be about how we treat the incarcerated as well as those accused of crimes. The current focus on fixing sentences and lighter bail does not help those on the inside. Providing opportunities for incarcerated individuals to earn an education along with job skills helps the incarcerated become better citizens when released. It is a long process and waiting until a person has less than five years to complete a sentence is too late. It should start from the time a person is incarcerated and last until they are released. Even a person serving a life sentence can become a peer educator to other inmates. This provides a unique perspective on the learning process, because other inmates tend to listen to older inmates incarcerated for a long period.

Programs offered at Danville Correctional Center have changed in the past several months. House peer educators run the building-block program, running specific classes to help individuals learn anger management, criminal thinking awareness, and thinking for change. The peer educators are incarcerated individuals who apply for the position and go through an interview process; this is a paid position and offers good-behavior time. There is talk of creating an education wing with inmate volunteers to tutor in math and reading to help students in ABE and GED classes improve. This is moving in the right direction. However, the limited classroom space and the restriction by length of sentence are still barriers to access the programs. Available volunteers for the EJP programs can also limit classes offered each semester. Legislators need to pass funding for more education throughout the IDOC. Education can open doors and offer opportunities for former individuals in custody to become better citizens and positive contributors within the communities they re-enter.

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