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Formerly incarcerated students can now Zoom back into prison to finish their degrees

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Around noon on a recent Monday, Maria Garza logged into Zoom.

He set the laptop on the stove in the kitchen and set 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!” called his professor. Several other women wearing gray overalls attended.

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

“All my stuff is brown!” she exclaimed. “Someone got a purple?”

“We have colors, Maria!” someone shouted back. Her professor showed her mixtures of cloudy green and bright purple.

Garza and her classmates are all enrolled in Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program (NPEP), a liberal arts program for women incarcerated to obtain college degrees. Out of all of her classmates, she is the only one who zooms in from the outside.

The number of inmates in undergraduate programs is low. But as the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) seeks to increase opportunities for higher education behind bars, it must figure out how to enable students like Garza to complete their education even when they’re released from prison in the middle of a semester. or degree course.

According to IDOC, most higher education programs in prisons are so new that they have yet to develop “reentry plans” for people who are released. This leaves the few students who are released before the end of their programs worried about how they will stay in school once they leave.

“The First Student Who Came Home”

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

“Maria was our first student to go home, and we didn’t even know at the time that IDOC would allow students to continue zooming in,” said NPEP program director Jennifer Lackey, whose on-campus office northwest corner of Evanston is filled with photos of its students who are incarcerated.

Northwestern began its graduate program at Logan Women’s Prison in 2020, but it didn’t have a plan for students like Garza to be released in the middle of their studies, Lackey said.

People on the outside need permission to communicate with people in prison, so IDOC agreed to approve Garza as long as he only talked to his peers about school-related things in class.

“So, in other words, I can’t be on Zoom and say, ‘Hey, I talked to your daughter.’ It all has to be about class, homework and assignments,” Garza said.

But even zoom requires cameras and televisions in prison classrooms, which was not standard practice before the pandemic.

While schools and prisons have been locked down to mitigate the spread of the virus, NPEP has received a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to address the challenges of COVID-19. Lackey said they used the money to install videoconferencing equipment in prison classrooms.

“Once that became a possibility, the kind of reentry support metrics changed at that time,” Lackey said.

Now, NPEP students getting out of jail have three options. They can take in-person classes on the Evanston campus, enroll in an online program, or stick with their prison cohort and scale up the classes in-house.

While being in person would be ideal, Lackey said it can be difficult for people with records to find housing and jobs near campus. He also acknowledges that there is a lot of resistance to offering this kind of reentry support.

“For many universities, there is not only stigma around prison education programs, but I would say additional stigma around having previously incarcerated students on campus.”

Change the narrative

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

“So far, we’ve released four students,” said program director Vickie Reddy. “And every single one of them came out and lived on or around campus.”

The program helps its students find housing and connects them to on-campus employment opportunities. They have also had graduates who have continued to teach within the program.

By creating this pathway, they are trying to change the way society views people coming out of prison. Still, Reddy admits that having previously incarcerated people on campus is an experiment educators are still figuring out how to navigate. And the stigma around crime and incarceration weighs heavily on students fresh out of prison.

“All it takes is for one person to go out and screw it up somehow, and screw it up,” Reddy said. “Because we look at that, not all the others who are doing great.

Back in her kitchen with her liquids turning all the wrong colors, Garza said she found strength in keeping in touch with her peers by entering prison twice a week.

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

He thinks it’s helping his incarcerated classmates as well, helping them stay connected to the world, and watching one of their peers finish their degree on the outside.

Anna Savchenko covers criminal justice for WBEZ. To follow @annasavchenkoo

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Written by Natalia Chi

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