Educated Behind Bars: How Northwestern University Is Leading The Way

Members of the first graduating class are about to receive their degrees. Educated Behind Bars: How Northwestern University Is Leading The Way Northwestern University/YouTube screenshot

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Far from merely a source of punishment, prison should be a way for incarcerated individuals to achieve rehabilitation and receive the essential tools that might not have been available before their convictions.

For many prisoners, this includes an education. And while there have been programs, including college courses, available inside of American prisons for generations, one university is taking the concept further.

A top 10 institution

Northwestern University has a storied reputation, including its status on U.S. News and World Reports’ list of top 10 universities in the country. But for dozens of students preparing to receive their bachelor’s degrees, there were no traditional classrooms and their dorm rooms were behind heavily guarded prison walls.

A total of 80 prisoners registered for the university’s first-ever Northwestern Prison Education Program and will officially graduate later this week.

Not only did they achieve this goal despite being locked up, but founding director Jennifer Lackey noted the other factors that could have been roadblocks to their success — most notably, a global pandemic.

“What this cohort lived through, it’s really nothing short of extraordinary,” she said.

A glimpse inside

Since there are obvious challenges for those in the prison program that traditional students don’t face, the learning environment looks much different for these individuals.

  • Professors generally show up at the prison for in-person lectures.
  • Staffers collect handwritten assignments and deliver printed lessons.
  • Students released before graduating can attend classes remotely.

While these students can benefit directly, evidence shows that the program is also good for society as a whole. For every $1 invested in prison education programs, as much as $5 is saved in the cost of future incarceration due to the fact that the recidivism rate is almost cut in half among those who successfully complete such programs.

Chris Agee
Chris Agee November 13th, 2023
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