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Graduates of Northwestern University's NPEP program celebrate
A moment of celebration at Northwestern University's Northwestern Prison Education Program commencement ceremony (Photo by Monika Wnuk)

On Nov. 15, at Stateville Correctional Center, a multi-security level prison near Chicago, 16 men graduated with bachelor’s degrees from Northwestern University through the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

The guest list included Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Lt. Gov. Juliane Stratton, Illinois state Sens. Robert Peters and Rachel Ventura, and the award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, who gave the commencement speech, met with the graduates before the ceremony. He said he was surprised to see that we were exactly who he was told we were: scholars.

During his commencement remarks, Coates grew emotional. “I think I can safely say that I will never in my life address a class that’s as decorated as this,” he said. He charmed the crowd by recognizing faculty he knew personally, including professor Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington professor of sociology and chair of the Black studies department at Northwestern University. If Pattillo had taught us, Coates suggested, then he knew we were indeed scholars.

Coates said society had failed us and he apologized on its behalf.

“My pessimism is not for you,” he said. “My pessimism is for me, my pessimism is for this side of the audience, and my pessimism is for everybody that I’m on stage with. The fact of the matter is this is your success. But it’s our failure.”

Pritzker, who was unable to attend the graduation, shared a video message expressing his support and calling the program part of his criminal justice reform — an effort to transform “our criminal justice system to one of restorative justice” that replaces some of the more “archaic punitive measures in Illinois.” He also expressed how proud he was of us.

“What you have accomplished here flies in the face of all the assumptions and stereotypes that have been heaped upon you,” Pritzker said, acknowledging the many hours of hard work and studying that we graduates had put in. “To that I say: Don't ever stop defying those expectations.”

Perhaps no one was more proud than the graduates themselves. Michael Broadway, who is also the author of the book “One Foot In,” tearfully addressed his mother, flinging his arms wide and asking, “So I ask you, Mama, how did I do?” He had not seen her in person in nearly two decades.

Until this program, most of the graduates felt no one had previously believed in them enough to let them prove themselves. Nobody thought they were smart — and definitely not smart enough to earn a degree. All it took was someone willing to give these men a chance.

That’s exactly what NPEP Founding Director Jennifer Lackey did. She set the stage, and it was up to us to prove that we had the intelligence and the drive to take our courses and excel. Professor Lackey, as she’s known to many of us, was always adamant that the courses taught at Stateville would be the same ones taught on campus, with the same professors and, most importantly, the same academic standards.

College is difficult anywhere, but there are particular challenges in prison. It is always loud. There are often lockdowns and shakedowns. The situation was especially volatile during the pandemic when we were forced to adapt to a correspondence-only system for our coursework.

Many of the NPEP students contracted the disease themselves. Others lost family members and friends. I lost my cellmate and best friend of 20 years, James Scott. Through all of this chaos and hardship, we focused on our schoolwork and passed course after course with high marks.

Some guys faced other serious health problems. Broadway was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer during the program. At one point, he said his goodbyes to people. But he continued his coursework and managed to fight for his health until he beat cancer.

For many guys, their studies were like an anchor, providing stability.

Lackey took a bunch of guys who wanted nothing to do with building a community and helped form us into a brotherhood. We have become a family — a family of scholars who all want to continue our education and help our community inside and outside of prison.

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.