Reporter’s Notebook: Why We’re Investigating Education And Incarceration In Illinois


Julius Mercer, a Chicago area author and formerly incarcerated person, with Illinois Newsroom reporter Lee Gaines.

Earlier this year, I reported for Illinois Newsroom that the Illinois Department of Corrections spent less than $300 on books for its educational programs across more than two dozen state prisons last year. I also reported that figure represents a dramatic decrease in spending since the early 2000s when IDOC was spending roughly three-quarters of a million dollars per year on books in prisons. After spending months interviewing volunteers who send books to prisons and inmates, researchers who study the impact of education on recidivism, former prison librarians and former Illinois inmates, I still had a lot of questions.

Namely, why did Illinois stop spending money on books for its prisons? Who made that decision? How has education programming inside the state’s prisons evolved over the last three decades?

The more I talked to formerly incarcerated people, researchers and others involved in advocating for educational opportunities for the currently and formerly incarcerated, the more questions popped up.

I wanted answers.

Thanks to support from the Education Writers Association, Illinois Newsroom is committed to getting those answers to the public. I’ll be spending the next roughly six months documenting the history of education inside Illinois’s correctional facilities, while also shedding light on barriers to higher education for those who are formerly incarcerated. My reporting will focus on people who this actually affects. I’ll also be trying my darndest to get answers from those responsible for the policies that create roadblocks to educational opportunities for people who are still inside, as well as those who’ve left prison.

Why do this?

For starters, there’s research that suggests a correlation between educational attainment and reduced recidivism. For example, a Rand Corporation study found that inmates who participate in education programs inside prisons have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who don’t. That meta-analysis also concludes that for every dollar spent on educational programs inside prisons, $4 to $5 can be saved on re-incarceration costs.

Recidivism is a big challenge in Illinois. Nearly half of people locked up in the state’s prisons return to correctional facilities within three years of release — that’s according to a 2015 report from Illinois’ Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. That report also notes that 97 percent of Illinois inmates will be released from prison at some point.

And data suggests this is a population that can benefit from increased access to education. For example, of the more than 43,000 people who were incarcerated in Illinois last year, only about 32 percent had graduated high school or received a GED, and just one percent had a college degree.

Even when someone leaves prison, there are still obstacles to overcome when trying to pursue a degree. For one, numerous Illinois colleges and universities ask applicants about their criminal records during the application. That can discourage people from following through with the application process. While the Common App — the online application form used by higher ed institutions across the country — announced this year that they’d no longer ask the question, some universities who use the form say they plan to continue asking it anyway.

While research suggests — and criminal justice reform advocates argue — that more educational opportunities for both those inside and those who used to be inside prison could have numerous benefits for society, plenty of barriers still exist.

I plan to find out why, what’s happening now, and who these challenges affect the most. We’ll produce a steady stream of radio broadcast features around this subject, as well as short videos, photos and online stories for our audience over the coming months. We also plan to invite community members to in-person, live events where we’ll discuss these stories with those who are featured in our reporting work.

What we need from you

If you or someone you know has a story about incarceration and education, I want to hear from you! And if you have a question about this topic that I haven’t included here, please let me know. I’ll investigate and report back. We’re accountable to our listeners and our readers first and foremost.

You can reach me via email at lee@ilnewsroom.org.