These women are getting college degrees in prison, thanks to Northwestern program

The program at Logan Correctional Center is the only one in Illinois and among a small number of programs nationwide where women who are incarcerated can earn a bachelor’s degree.

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Chelsea Raker, right, is among a group of students in a Northwestern University design thinking class at the Logan Correctional Center, which houses Illinois’ only full liberal arts program for incarcerated women. Anna Savchenko / WBEZ

Chelsea Raker, right, is among a group of students in a Northwestern University design thinking class at the Logan Correctional Center, which houses Illinois’ only full liberal arts program for incarcerated women. Anna Savchenko / WBEZ

The inside of the education building at the Logan Correctional Center in central Illinois looks like a regular high school.

Most classrooms are empty. But on a recent weekday, one fills up with a dozen or so incarcerated women — the first female cohort of Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program.

Among them is 27-year-old Chelsea Raker, a Georgia native with tattoos running up her arms. She has one underneath her chin that says, “Take risks and prosper.”

“I tell a lot of young people who ask me [that] it says, ‘I made bad decisions when I was 21,’ ” she jokes.

Although she can be the class clown at times, the young mother gets emotional when talking about what this program means to her.

“Just knowing that you are deserving of accomplishing something or have the opportunity to do things that normal 21-year-olds would do, pursuing an education, pursuing your dreams, just makes you feel human,” Raker says, her voice quivering as she holds back tears.

But these programs are extremely rare in Illinois and around the country. While college students across Illinois have been returning to campus in recent weeks to start a new semester, there are few options for women in prison. Logan has the only liberal arts degree-granting curriculum for incarcerated women in Illinois, and experts say it is one of only a small number of similar programs in the nation.

Prison education experts like Rebecca Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, point to research showing the more education a person pursues while behind bars, the less likely they are to return.

“It doesn’t serve just the individual, that’s what’s been so clear from decades of research,” Ginsburg said. “Higher education is not an individual good. It’s a good that supports all of society, all the communities. It has ripple effects all throughout Illinois when we educate somebody who’s incarcerated.”

Patricia Ouska (left) talks with one of her Northwestern professors in a classroom at the Logan women’s prison. 

Patricia Ouska (left) talks with one of her Northwestern professors in a classroom at the Logan women’s prison.

Anna Savchenko / WBEZ

‘I probably would be sitting in my room doing nothing’

Patricia Ouska, a soft-spoken 52-year-old who wears her hair in a tight bun, didn’t think she would be accepted into Northwestern’s program.

Now, she can’t imagine life without it.

“This program is the best thing they have ever offered in any prison that I have been in,” she said.

Ouska has been in prison for 30 years. She was convicted of murder and armed robbery when she was young. When she’s released, she wants to help people leaving prison make it on the outside. Through Northwestern, she’s already helped set up a restorative justice court for young people in Evanston.

“Had Northwestern not come, I probably would be sitting in my room doing nothing,” Ouska said.

The Northwestern program first started in 2018 as a pilot program for incarcerated men at the Stateville Correctional Center. It has since expanded to Logan, a women’s prison a half-hour drive north of Springfield, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Aside from the program, the Illinois Department of Corrections mostly offers limited basic education or a small number of vocational courses to incarcerated women. There were once more degree-granting programs in prisons, but in 1994 people in prison lost eligibility for Pell Grants, the main federal financial aid program for low-income students.

The loss of Pell Grants forced many postsecondary prison education programs to shutter as most relied on federal funding, Professor Ginsburg explained.

Ginsburg expects this number to grow next year as the U.S. Department of Education plans to restore Pell Grant eligibility for students in prison.

The challenges of school in prison

Back at Logan, the students head into brainstorming groups. They’re in a design thinking class, and their task is to re-imagine how parts of the Logan facility can be improved.

One group is in charge of re-imagining the cells, which the students said aren’t good for studying.

“More study space, i.e. desks and chairs in the cells … Less individuals in cells,” one student said. The rest of the class nods in agreement.

There are other obstacles in prison. For security reasons, students don’t have access to computers, the internet or a university library. They write out papers by hand and communicate with professors through letters.

“It’s very challenging,” said professor Barbara Shwom.

After a period where students had to take courses remotely during pandemic lockdowns, classes are back to normal. Shwom said the faculty make sure at least one teacher shows up in person each week to give the students a chance to connect with their professors.

For students like Raker, it’s the one thing they look forward to.

“Just me being able to have something I can watch, I’m actually seeing progress,” Raker said. “I’m actually seeing myself accomplish something. It does tremendous things for me.”

Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ.

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