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Two men incarcerated at San Quentin sit at their own tables with papers in front of them.
Photo by Eddie Herena

For the first couple years of my incarceration, I saw myself as just a number, trying to navigate prison.

Tired of the same vicious cycle, I eventually decided to enroll in classes.

In my quest for education, I’ve experienced the frustration and disappointment that many incarcerated people encounter in Illinois when trying to learn in prison.

The barriers to education in prison are particularly infuriating when you consider how much school can help people change and avoid returning to prison. Receiving an education while incarcerated reduces the probability of committing new crimes by 43% upon release, according to a study by RAND Corporation.

The same study found that people who participate in prison education programs are 13% more likely to find jobs upon release than those who do not. This hurts society because the United States, as a whole, loses about $78 to $87 billion each year due to unemployment or underemployment among people with criminal records, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

In spite of this positive evidence, most states restrict education access based on length of sentence and type of crime, or through cumbersome administrative requirements.

The Council of State Governments has found that only 17 states take advantage of available state and federal funding to support education for people during their incarceration and after their release. Only a quarter of all states offer comprehensive support and incentives that incarcerated people need to pursue educational opportunities.

One barrier I encountered sprang out of a policy change from June 2013, which required that prisoners be placed on course waiting lists according to the length of their sentence. The longer the sentence, the lower down you are on the list. Prior to the change, the list was organized according to the order that prisoners requested access to the course.

I was eventually able to earn a paralegal certificate and enroll in an advanced bankruptcy course, but the cost of the classes added up — and I was one of the lucky folks who had generous financial assistance from my family.

I was excited when my friend Jeff told me that incarcerated people were once again eligible for the Pell Grant. Family and friends helped Jeff and I search for universities with accredited correspondence programs, and we filled out financial aid forms.

But then we encountered another roadblock: All exams required a proctor. When we wrote to our counselor and college administrator, we were told that our institution would not provide one.

The Illinois Department of Corrections states that its mission is “to serve justice in Illinois and increase public safety by promoting positive change for those in custody, operating successful reentry programs, and reducing victimization.”

This mission statement does not reflect reality. Discouraging prisoners from earning a degree by restricting access to courses, financial aid and proctor exams is far from promoting positive change or operating a successful reentry program.

This could be a reason why, at 52%, Illinois has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, according to Pew Research Center.

Some states, such as California and New York, are making progress in education and rehabilitation by granting access to college classes. Illinois has a program in Stateville Correctional Center with Northwestern University and Oakton Community College, but most prisons lack sufficient educational resources.

Illinois must reform the prison system to expand access to education so that people like me can experience positive change and successfully reenter society.

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.

Aaron is a writer incarcerated in Illinois. He is publishing under his first name only for fear of reprisal.