A prestigious $500,000 grant will allow the John Howard Association to “expand our outreach and educate the public about what we’re doing,” the head of the prison watchdog said Thursday.

The Chicago-based John Howard Association was among nine organizations around the world to receive grants from $500,000 to $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation.

“The recognition is fantastic,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, interim executive director of the John Howard Association.

In recent years, John Howard prompted the state to audit the quality of medical care in state prisons and to close a juvenile rehabilitation program the group viewed as a failure, Vollen-Katz said.

The not-for-profit group’s annual operating budget is about $600,000, Vollen-Katz said.

“For us to get an award of this size is huge for us,” she said. “This is a down payment on our future.”

Last year, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, founded in 2008, received a $1 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The think tank attracted national attention with studies of programs intended to reduce teen violence.