Education Justice Project
The Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois offers the same level of rigorous coursework at Danville Correctional Center that students experience on the main campus. [Photo courtesy of Education Justice Project/Rebecca Ginsburg]

The invitation to the Art Theatre in downtown Champaign, Illinois last week was for a 2-hour screening event, a typical length for many Hollywood features these days. But this was not typical.

Far from it.

The actual screening was only 10 minutes long. But a powerfully compact and well-produced documentary told the story of the successful mission of the Education Justice Project, a commitment to developing a model prison education program in Danville Correctional Center some 30 or so miles to the east.

The rest of the event centered on a discussion of why that mission has been so important — to the EJP staff, who constantly are assessing the program and its progress; to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign faculty, who have volunteered to teach in the medium-security DCC over the past seven years; to the people around the state, who will see ex-offenders returning to their communities as agents of positive social change; and to those men themselves, the formerly incarcerated, whose college experience has caused them to see their world differently and to work hard at making that vision a reality.

This student “take-away” arguably sets EJP apart from other education programs offered in correctional facilities. EJP organizers recognized the need for something more than the vocational training that is usually provided. More even than what is provided by other substantive upper-level prison education programs — a mere 35 in the entire country, according to EJP estimates.

EJP’s focus is a larger, socially transformative one. Its premise is based on an understanding that social change flows from community change and community change is led by enlightened individuals — like the people who advance from the EJP experience.

Much of the discourse on college education in prisons has been narrowly focused on the issue of recidivism — the alarming rate of return to prison. The conversation has intensified with the eye-opening 2013 Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Justice Department that showed a 43 percent reduction in recidivism and a 13 percent increase in employment of ex-offenders who took college-level courses while incarcerated. Good numbers. Encouraging results. But not enough. “That is way too low a bar,” EJP Director Rebecca Ginsburg told me after last week’s screening. Even assuming the Rand numbers are correct — which she does not — Ginsburg is given to “wince” when conversations on prison education focus on reducing recidivism, as if that is the only point.

It’s not that EJP doesn’t recognize its contribution in this regard. Of the 37 EJP alumni — those students who have been released from DCC — only one has returned to prison. A recidivism rate of only 3 percent. That’s exceptional compared to the national rate of 49.7 percent, which was released last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and includes data from 23 states for inmates released in 2005.

The motivation for officials to consider these stats is right there on the bottom line. According to a 2011 report by PEW Charitable Trusts which looked at recidivism data from 41 states for inmates released in 2004, states could save a combined $635 million in prison costs with just a 10 percent reduction in recidivism.

Illinois’s current prison population is 48,664 and has grown by 29 percent since 1995, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. With an average of roughly 33,000 people returning home from prison a year, a recidivism rate of 47 percent and an annual cost-per-inmate of $20,110 (based on 2011 data), these are significant considerations.

If the trends in each study hold true, then bringing upper level curriculum into prisons should lead — ultimately — to reduced prison populations and costs.

So why is this goal considered to be setting the bar too low? That is because EJP, which runs out of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, provides more than just a challenging lineup of courses in areas such as anthropology, engineering, art history, math, literature, and biology.

A critical part of EJP’s success is its holistic approach. EJP also offers writing workshops, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, radio production, publishing opportunities and, importantly, community outreach services. “It’s more than just students coming to sit in the classroom and then leaving again,” Ginsburg notes in the film. “They come back to participate in Resource Room times or to participate in student meetings, or in student committees and in extra-curricular activities.” Classes meet only on Fridays, but she points out, “It’s possible for an EJP student to spend 5 days a week, Monday through Friday in the Education Building involved in EJP work.”

It is a non-degree program, and students are required to complete 60 hours of credits at the community college level to qualify. In meeting this prerequisite, students transition from the behavioral patterns that landed them in prison to goal setting and community building. By the time they get to EJP, they’re invested in the program, its mission and each other. “Our class is more like a family,” notes Orlando Mayorga, a student who now tutors other inmates in the English as a Second Language program. “We have come to love each other. And that’s kind of weird coming from a person who is in prison, but it just comes naturally.”

That level of connection is the key. Research shows the ultimate beneficiaries of college prison programs are the communities to which these prisoners will return. “We’re not just talking about any communities,” Ginsburg says in the film. “We’re talking about the most disadvantaged, most impoverished, most marginalized economically and politically.”

These are places where the EJP alumni continue to have a positive impact as mentors and organizers.

“The good that our program accomplishes is that it produces men who are going to be articulate, progressive leaders in their communities,” Ginsburg told me. “They want to work with youth, with victims of violence. That’s the advantage. That’s the social good.”

And that is where the bar should be.

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Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.