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Incarcerated NPEP graduate Todd Mandoline, wearing a green cap and gown, speaks at the podium.
NPEP graduate Todd Mandoline speaks at his graduation ceremony. (Photo by Monika Wnuk)

Over the years, Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Illinois, has been notorious for many issues, especially violence.

However, as a sign that things are changing, Stateville held its first associate degree ceremony ever on April 20 for the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP), an associate and bachelor’s degree initiative of Northwestern University that aims to provide a high-quality liberal arts education to incarcerated students in Illinois in partnership with Oakton Community College and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).

Filling a vital need

NPEP is the only top-10 university in the nation to confer its own bachelor’s degree to incarcerated students. It fills a vital need in Illinois by being the only degree-granting program in the state providing a full liberal arts curriculum — humanities, fine arts, social sciences and STEM courses to incarcerated students. The program was the brainchild of its founder and director Jennifer Lackey, a professor in Northwestern’s philosophy department.

I have been very fortunate to be in the first cohort of 20 students and to have received my associate degree with honors. Many of us in the cohort had never experienced a graduation ceremony or had people be proud of us for our accomplishments. More importantly, we have never had the chance to be proud of ourselves.

All of us in our caps and gowns, and the faculty of two schools gathered together in their ceremonial robes for the ceremony. The sight of their sober dignity made us aware of just how important this moment was.

As one of my classmates said, “I didn't know all of these people cared so much.”

Overcoming obstacles

We were allowed to invite two members of our family. I invited my sister and my niece. Having our family there to be presented with our degrees and to cheer us on was amazing. The entire cohort graduated with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher.

Each of us reflected on what we went through, the obstacles we had to overcome to get to this point. For myself, it was particularly poignant. I was homeless at 13 years old, and I remembered reading books by the light of a street lamp.

One of my friends and fellow student Justin Cavazos said, “I thought I was going to die in the streets, and no one cared one way or the other. Seeing how many people do care and are proud of me makes me feel like I can do anything.”

The entire process had been challenging from the very beginning.

First, the admissions process was very selective. More than 300 people applied to get into the program. We had to write an essay on what education meant to us and go through an interview process. Out of 300, only 20 men were selected, an acceptance rate of 6.7%.

Author Anthony Ehlers holds a photo of his deceased cellmate James Scott. (Photo by Monika Wnuk)

The program, from its inception, was designed to instill not just education but confidence and self-worth. The classes have been demanding. We learned from the same professors as students outside, took the same coursework, and the expectations were the same.

The transition from inmate to college student was a process, and it was difficult. Going from literally rotting in a cage to having homework and classes was hard, but it was also extremely fulfilling. I've never seen guys so proud to do homework.

I saw the men in my cohort find their voices, hone their opinions and express themselves in positive ways. As our education grew, so too did our self-esteem and confidence. I watched as leaders in positivity emerged seemingly out of nowhere.

Men, who were normally quiet, began taking charge, helping those who were struggling. Corzell Cole, a student who was recently released and was permitted to join us for the graduation ceremony, was always a positive voice, often telling guys, “You're smart, you can do anything, especially the hard stuff!”

Impact from COVID

Two years ago, the pandemic changed everything, and our entire world was turned upside down. We went on strict lockdown, and classes had to be taught by correspondence. NPEP director Jennifer Lackey and the entire Northwestern team sprung into action.

The professors themselves had to change everything about the way they taught, and they arranged for our studies to be done alone. It was difficult for everyone. They gave each of us individual tutors to help us since there was no classroom setting.

The program even took our mental health into account, assembling a wellness team to provide us with stability and support. The team opened our eyes to new ideas like yoga and meditation, even a meditation circle. The amount of support we received was unbelievable, and as the pandemic raged along, boy, did we need it.

More than 30 men died here of COVID-19 in Stateville. Many were friends. I myself lost 11 friends, including my best friend and cellmate James Scott. Continuing my education after his death was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. Thinking of his encouragement and knowing he would want me to keep going helped.

Studying in this prison at the best of times is tough, but being totally isolated from each other and the classroom was an unbelievable struggle. We held onto our education as an anchor in a shifting sea. The difficulty of Northwestern made us strive to be more, to grow and be better.

Even still, I know I wouldn’t have made it without the commitment and support of the NPEP people, particularly Professor Lackey. Even though she had responsibilities teaching, writing a book, and being the director of the program, she still found time to write to me weekly. Her encouragement and support helped me through one of the darkest times of my life. Each one in the cohort received personal care.

When we walked across the stage, all of us were given the opportunity to make a short statement. A lot of guys spoke about the difficulties of the pandemic.

“I didn't think I could do it, but I couldn't give up on becoming a better person,” my friend Shareaf Fleming said in his speech. “I thought of James, and how proud he would be of me, of all of us!”

Education reduces recidivism

The second cohort of NPEP students were also in attendance watching our graduation ceremony. One student said to me, “You guys are the trailblazers. I can't wait to walk across the stage and feel what you guys are feeling.”

The pride we felt, the love and support of that day, will stay with each of us forever.

For me, graduation was a triumph. I had been told that, as a long-term offender, it wasn't worth being educated, that it was a waste of time. When you hear these kinds of words, and live in this environment for so long, you begin to believe them.

Northwestern saw us as human beings, saw the intelligence and worth in us. Every one of the men in this program has grown and become the best versions of themselves. They are smart, and confident, sure of their own worth, and have a drive to continue to be better. All of us have goals and aspirations that once seemed like a dream but now feel attainable.

Data shows that education reduces recidivism. All of these men are upstanding members of the community here, and they are striving to be upstanding members of the outside world. Programs like NPEP are what rehabilitation is all about.

It is with profound humility and happiness that I can say I am a college graduate!

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer and 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He is incarcerated in Illinois.