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Spotlight on the Northwestern Prison Education Program

Created: April 15, 2019

The Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP), led by Jennifer Lackey, PhD, Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy, is a partnership between Northwestern University and the Illinois Department of Corrections. NPEP aims to provide a high-quality liberal arts education to incarcerated students in the state of Illinois by offering credit-bearing courses through Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies. This program enhances Northwestern’s academic mission by fostering the development of a dynamic and diverse intellectual community.

Through NPEP, a group of TGS students from a broad range of departments, including sociology, chemistry, philosophy, law, and political science, have created a community with diverse academic backgrounds who are united in their interest to provide educational opportunities to those in prison. The students in NPEP were recently awarded a TGS Co-Sponsorship Grant to support the classroom supplies needed and help cover the cost of transportation to and from the prisons.

What do your responsibilities with NPEP entail?

Anne d'Aquino: I am a tutor in study hall at the Stateville Correctional Center and will also teach a mini-course on biology in the summer at the Cook County Department of Corrections During my spare time, I am working on assembling re-entry packets for students who will be leaving the prison. These packets will have resources that are tailored to the students’ goals. Some of these students aspire to be philosophers, continue their education, go to law school, and more. They have goals and dreams; and I hope the re-entry packets can help them with their footing in these pursuits.

Lauren Leydon-Hardy: I'm a member of the Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) and we are always looking for ways to take some of the work off of Jennifer's desk. We hold weekly office hours where we write grant applications, keep the website up-to-date, manage our social media, organize fundraising events, etc. I also volunteer at the prison for weekly study halls, reading groups, and other immersive academic engagement opportunities. In addition, I coordinate NPEP volunteers at the Cook County Jail where we offer 4-week mini-courses on introductory topics.

Maria Dikcis: I co‑teach a 6‑week mini-course with Anne B. titled “Introduction to Poetry: Voices, Rhythms, and Visions of Chicago.” This course seeks to trace a lineage of poets who were born in, migrated to, or were otherwise strongly influenced by the city of Chicago. Our course is meant to be skills‑based and provide incarcerated students with a thorough background in the sort of argumentation, organization, and style that goes into formal essay writing. Our class is a small, primarily discussion‑based environment that gives students the rare and invaluable chance to both vocalize their thoughts and learn from the insights of their peers in a supportive environment.

Why did you get involved with NPEP?

Andrea d'Aquino: As a first-generation college student and the youngest in a family of seven, I didn’t believe that higher education was in the cards for me, and I certainly didn’t recognize how important education is to my growth as an individual. I am incredibly fortunate to have had access to resources and support in my life to eventually pursue higher education, which profoundly changed the trajectory of my life. Education and learning spark curiosity and creativity, essential elements to changing our minds and changing our world. I have been motivated to make education and science accessible and inclusive to all, and I recognized that NPEP was the perfect opportunity to do just that. I recognize that everyone comes from different backgrounds, and that not everyone has equal access to the resources and education many of us take for granted. 

Anne Boemler : My Christian faith is absolutely explicit that prisoners deserve our utmost attention and care. NPEP enables me to take all the skills and training I have had in teaching and use it on behalf of those whom our society all too often overlooks and discards.

Jake Rothschild: I began working with NPEP because I highly value the teaching side of academia and was looking for an additional venue to work with students. NPEP has offered me a chance to do that, while helping to bring opportunities for higher education to those who otherwise have not had access to them.

What lessons have you learned from participating in NPEP?

Anne d'Aquino: I have learned how transformative and empowering education can be. I knew these things from my own personal experience with education; however, in the context of a prison environment, these sentiments are amplified.

Grace Kessler Overbeke: People have an overly inflated idea of what makes people experiencing incarceration different from people who are not. An 'inmate' is just a person who is in prison--not a qualitatively different being. 

Steven Swick: The old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover" comes to mind. Although it is easy to say, under certain circumstances people are inclined to make premature judgments. Meeting the NPEP students for the first time can be an intimidating experience, and casting aside your preconceptions about who they might be can be difficult. I have found my students to be friendly, welcoming, intelligent, and thoughtful, and this has taught me that no matter who you think a person is, you don't really know until you meet them. 

How have you applied the skills learned in NPEP to your studies or other aspects of your life? 

Andrea d'Aquino: NPEP has taught me to be a better listener, and to problem solve on the spot. These are skills I have absolutely been able to apply to other aspects of my life.

Anne d'Aquino: I have learned so much about fields and topics outside of my expertise. My discussions with other Northwestern graduate students, as well as the NPEP students, have expanded my understanding of race, borders, incarceration, and more. Stepping away from the research bench and immersing myself in these philosophical conversations and discussions outside of my field has been challenging and incredibly rewarding. 

Steven Swick: Learning to be comfortable talking with and connecting with somebody from a very different background than my own has helped me to engage with people in my life that I may not otherwise.

What benefits have you seen from working with this program? (both in your own life and in the participants lives)

Andrea d'Aquino: Working with NPEP has made me acutely aware of the economic and social disparities between communities within Chicago (and so many other places in our country) and how those disparities have affected the lives of those who are disadvantaged or who do not have access to the social capital we all take for granted. This awareness has made me even more motivated to bring education to underserved populations and raise more awareness around these disparities. I can also see that NPEP will have direct impacts on recidivism (as many studies have shown that the higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate is) and employment opportunities for our students. Even for those who are serving lengthy, even natural life sentences, prison education has profound and often life-changing benefits. There is a substantial reduction in violence and disciplinary infractions among those involved in prison education.

Lauren Leydon-Hardy: Prison education will be a meaningful part of my life, for the rest of my life. In the fall I am starting as an assistant professor of philosophy at Amherst College. I'm gutted to be leaving NPEP, but excited to begin working with the prison education program there, where I will be able to teach inside and outside the classroom and, hopefully, help expand their programming.

Steven Swick: I have found that volunteering with NPEP helps me step away from my graduate studies and remember that there are other important things going on in the world besides my research. I hope that at the study halls I have been able to provide the students useful feedback on their work and to impart some of my love of science. 

How has NPEP benefited from the TGS Co-Sponsorship Grant? 

Lauren Leydon-Hardy: The TGS Co-Sponsorship Grant has enabled NPEP to support five mini-courses at the Cook County Jail. This is huge! NPEP provides school supplies for our student and covers mileage and parking for our volunteers. Incarcerated individuals at the jail are in a tremendously uncertain time in their lives, making programming and education all the more crucial to their wellness. Our mini-courses also provide an opportunity for NPEP to connect with incarcerated women. It feels like an important way for NPEP to be growing right now.

Maria Dikcis: The TGS Co‑Sponsorship Grant is helping to re‑prioritize prison education in a way that local, state, and federal governments have failed to do. Since the widespread defunding of college programs for incarcerated students in the ‘90s, there is a common misconception that prison education programs are a complete waste of money. In reality, mass incarceration is extremely costly, and more money is being spent on trying to keep (mostly black and brown) people behind bars than on initiatives to prevent them from returning to that state. The TGS Co‑Sponsorship Grant is providing vital resources that are showing incarcerated students that they matter as human beings, that their long‑term educational and employment opportunities, well‑being, families, and communities are deserving of being invested in. At the same time, Northwestern faculty and students have the chance to mentor individuals with whom they might not otherwise come into contact. There are endless benefits on both sides of the equation. 

If you are interested in learning more about NPEP, visit their website or follow them on Twitter.