College students in prison continue classes after release | Wbactive

On a recent Monday around noon, Maria Garza logged on to Zoom.

She placed her laptop on her stovetop and placed several plastic cups on the counter. One by one, she filled them with things like baking soda and ammonia before a chemistry experiment. Then a classroom appeared on her screen.

“Hello Maria!” Her professor called. Several other women in gray tracksuits joined in.

Garza, 48, mixed the liquids together to test their acidity but didn’t have much luck.

“All my clothes are brown!” she exclaimed. “Did anyone get a purple?”

“We’ve got the colors, Maria!” someone called back. Her professor held up a cloudy green and bright purple mixture for her to see.

Garza and her classmates are all enrolled in Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program (NPEP), a liberal arts program for incarcerated women, to pursue their bachelor’s degree. Of all her classmates, she is the only one who zooms in from the outside.

The number of detainees in study courses is low. But as the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) tries to improve opportunities for higher education behind bars, it needs to figure out how students like Garza can complete their education even if they get out of prison mid-semester or mid-term.

According to IDOC, most higher education programs in prisons are so new that they have yet to develop “re-entry plans” for released individuals. That leaves the few students who are released before the end of their programs worried about how they’ll stay in school once they’re out.

“First Student to Come Home”

Garza sat in the same classroom as her peers at Logan Correctional Center, 180 miles southwest of Chicago, until she was released just over a year ago. Now she’s the only one out of about a dozen students who calls from outside.

“Maria was our first student to come home, and we didn’t even know at the time that IDOC would allow students to continue by zooming,” said NPEP program director Jennifer Lackey, whose office is on the Northwestern campus in Evanston full is photos of their imprisoned students.

Northwestern began its college program in 2020 at Logan Women’s Prison, but they had no plan for students like Garza who would be released mid-college, Lackey said.

People outside need permission to communicate with people inside, so IDOC agreed to approve Garza as long as she only spoke to her peers about school-related things during class.

“In other words, I can’t be on Zoom and say, ‘Hey, I spoke to your daughter.’ It has to be all about the classes and the homework and the assignments,” Garza said.

But even for zooming, cameras and televisions must be placed in prison classrooms, which was not common before the pandemic.

As schools and prisons went into lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, NPEP received a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help address the challenges of COVID-19. Lackey said they used the money to install video conferencing equipment in the prisons’ classrooms.

“When that became possible, at that moment the nature of the reentry assist parameters changed,” Lackey said.

Now NPEP students who leave prison have three choices. They can take classes in person on the Evanston campus, enroll in an online program, or stay with their prison cohort and zoom into the class.

Although it would be ideal to be in person, Lackey said it can be difficult for people with records to find housing and a job close to campus. She also acknowledges that there is a lot of resistance to offering this type of re-entry support.

“For many universities, not only is there a stigma about incarcerated educational programs, but I would say there is an additional stigma of having formerly incarcerated students on campus.”

change of narrative

Aside from Northwestern, North Park University is one of the few prison programs that also offers a reentry path for its students. They run a master’s program in Christian ministry at Logan and the Stateville Correctional Center, a prison about 40 miles from Chicago.

“Four students have been released so far,” said program director Vickie Reddy. “And every single one of them came out and lived on or near campus.”

The program helps its students find housing and connects them to job opportunities on campus. They have also brought graduates to teach within the program.

By creating this path, they are trying to change how society sees people getting out of prison. Still, Reddy concedes that having formerly incarcerated people on campus is an experiment that educators are still figuring out how to navigate. And the stigma surrounding crime and incarceration weighs heavily on the students just released from prison.

“All it takes is for one person to come out and kind of screw it up, and it’s going to mess everything up,” Reddy said. “Because we look at one person, not everyone else, who is doing great things.

Back in her kitchen with her liquids all turning the wrong colors, Garza said she found strength in staying connected with her peers by logging into jail twice a week.

“It’s a comfort to me,” Garza said. “There are people who would say that when they leave [prison] they detach themselves from everything. But it’s hard to break away from people who understand what you’re going through.”

She believes it also helps her incarcerated classmates — helping them stay connected to the world and seeing one of their peers complete his degree outside of the city.

Anna Savchenko covers criminal justice for WBEZ. consequences @Annasavchenkoo

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