Northwestern Prison Education Program establishes bachelor’s program to advance education for the incarcerated


Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lackey

Northwestern Prison Education Program students can choose to take classes from NU, enroll in an associate’s program or enroll in the bachelor’s program during their incarceration.

Iris Swarthout, Senior Staffer

General Studies student Broderick Hollins first learned about Northwestern and Oakton Community College’s opportunities for incarcerated degree-seekers from a memo board in the Danville Correctional Center in 2018. 

Hollins expressed interest and secured an interview with Philosophy Prof. Jennifer Lackey, director of the NU Prison Education Program. However, before the interview could occur, Hollins was put into a 60-day period of solitary confinement.

It was then that Lackey pulled him out of confinement for the purpose of the interview — a moment he said saved his life from panic attacks and depression associated with extreme isolation.

“There were no lights, no windows, so I was just in there going crazy,” he said. “I always got to give credit where credit is due, and this program saved my life.”

Created in 2018, NPEP provides incarcerated people an NU education with a full liberal arts curriculum. The program first offered individual classes, then it transitioned to supporting students in attaining an associate’s degree from Oakton Community College, NU’s partner in the program. This year, 20 students were admitted to the newly established bachelor’s degree program, Lackey said. 

Hollins is now in his final year of his NU associate’s degree program. His enrollment and strong performance in NU classes contributed to a decrease in his sentence from 90 years to 12, in part granted from good behavior credit.

For Lackey, education is empowering and transformative — both for life inside prison and thereafter.

“I believe that institutions like Northwestern with tremendous resources of all different kinds have a moral obligation to engage in creating a more just society, … and we all know that mass incarceration in this country is the result of systemic racism,” Lackey said.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Black youth in the United States are arrested at higher rates than any other race compared to their proportion of the total population, and Black women comprise the greatest proportion of the population left unemployed after prison release. 

Social sciences student Corzell Cole is one of this year’s new admits to the four-year program. A now 39-year-old who did not have a high school diploma upon entering prison in 2002, Cole said he hopes to use his education for social and criminal justice work. 

Cole was incarcerated at 19 for alleged first-degree murder, which is a sentence that typically denotes life in prison. But Cole said he was not guilty of the charge: He said upon stopping at a traffic light, the man in the passenger seat of his car acted in self defense when he shot an armed man getting out of the vehicle next to them. The Illinois Department of Corrections didn’t acknowledge this until 2022 when one of his NU classmates with a J.D., Shelisa Thomas, took his case pro bono, he said.

“(She) was in the first class that I took when we started,” he said. “I got the state’s attorney to look at my case, and he came up with the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be in prison in the first place. … It took 19 years and four months for that to happen.”

Pritzker first-year student, NPEP member and Graduate Student Advisory Committee member Madisen Hursey said conditions within prisons are “demoralizing.” She has tutored students on and off in the Stateville Correctional Center since her last year as an NU undergraduate in 2019.

Hursey grew up with a single mother and has family members who have been in and out of prison, which she said has bolstered her connection with inmates. The prisoners she’s tutored are not very different from students on campus, Hursey added. 

“We are the same,” Hursey said. “We’re in the same program. We’re taking the same classes, we have the same professors, I’ve had their professors … and it’s something that I think gets overlooked.”

And the rigor of the degree programs within the prisons proves that, according to General Studies student Maria Garza, who took college classes prior to NPEP enrollment. Garza grew up in Aurora, Illinois, but dropped out of high school after moving to Mexico City with her family.

After returning to the U.S. and later entering the IDOC in 2007, Garza worked to earn her GED and eventually a college degree. She said she earned her GED in 2009 and took college courses through Lakeland Community College and Richland Community College — both of which provided an inadequate education, she added. 

“The teachers themselves did not have degrees, so we had teachers that did not know anything about essay writing … We got A’s for stuff that’s really (bad),” she said.

Garza said writing papers for NU classes has been considerably more difficult. She added that an NU degree may also hold more weight with employers than one from her previous colleges. 

Hollins, who was released earlier this year, is currently back in his home in Chicago. The reentry program has been difficult, he said, as taking care of his kids and paying bills is an adjustment.

Hollins still Zooms into his classes from home as NPEP operates only within the prisons themselves. And just days after his release, NU professors visited Hollins at his residence. 

“(NPEP faculty) were the first people to come see me when I came home, so the love and support here kind of helped keep me humble and safe because reentering is real hard,” Hollins said.

Correction: This article has been updated to include Oakton Community College’s role in the Northwestern Prison Education Program. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @swarthout_iris

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