“The biggest stigma that surrounds incarcerated men is that they are useless, vicious and lazy,” said Quinton Neal, an alumnus of the Education Justice Project, a program through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that provides higher education to incarcerated individuals at the men’s correctional facility in Danville, Illinois.
Incarceration rates in the United States are high: there are a total of 2.4 million people currently in the system. These figures have increased significantly in the last 30 years, and with incerasing numbers of convictions for non-violent crimes, America’s prison system has become a topic of concern for many advocates.
The Education Justice Project (EJP) at Illinois is working to broaden the horizons and opportunities of incarcerated men through education, and helping individuals on the outside gain a more sophisticated understanding of issues related to incarceration and the abilities and potential of people who have been imprisoned.
Funded by the University and with grants and private donations, EJP allows members of the university community to engage with the criminal justice system and local prison. Faculty, graduate students, staff, and community volunteers create all the elements of a college campus at the Danville Correctional Center, offering a range of educational programming to men with at least 60 hours of college credit. Advanced for-credit courses, in subjects like biology and anthropology, are taught by Illinois faculty and staff, and EJP also offers a range of extra-curricular activities, professional development workshops, a guest lecturer series and many other areas for student involvement.
The goal of EJP is to not only to educate the students involved in the program, but also to show the positive effects of higher education on their families, their communities, the justice system and society.
Rebecca Ginsburg, Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership and the co-founder and director of the program, said that during any given semester, EJP has 60 to 70 people involved and working within the program.
“Participation in our program prepares our students to engage with their families and with their community in a more critical and thoughtful way,” she said. “Interacting with our staff helps them to feel more confident about engaging with people on the outside and feel socially comfortable as they transition back into society.”
Alumni of EJP apply what they learn in the program to their lives as they return to their families and communities. After his release, Neal said that he used the skills he learned to create a mentoring program for young boys in the Peoria area. “For me personally, EJP gave me a voice and power to speak openly and honestly, figure out who I was and my strengths and weaknesses, and made me much more aware of the things going on in the world.”
Ginsburg said that throughout its existence, EPJ has organically grown.
“It has become much more than just a few courses that we offer at Danville Correctional Center. It is a loving, learning community that seeks to breach the harms and heal the wounds that have been caused by incarceration. We work to cultivate among our incarcerated students the capacity to speak out, to be engaged, active citizens of the world and to share with the community and the public at large the important dialogues that we need to confront around criminal justice and incarceration.”
Although the application period to volunteer with EJP is closed for this fall, applications will be accepting applications again in Spring, 2015. For more information on getting involved with EJP or to make a contribution, visit their website or contact Rebecca Ginsburg at email@example.com.