Inmates at Stateville Prison and Cook County Jail earn course credit

Deborah Ziff
March 30, 2017

Nearly every quarter, a group of DePaul University students travel to either Cook County Jail or Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet to take a course side by side with inmates through a program called Inside-Out.

Although all students - both the traditional and the incarcerated - are required to uphold the same rigorous academic standard, only the traditional DePaul students have been able to earn course credit since the program's inception five years ago.

That changed this academic year when, for the first time, DePaul granted inmates in the program college credit for their efforts. Stateville inmates who took a four-credit Community Service Studies restorative justice class this fall were the first to receive credit. Cook County inmates taking the course this quarter will also be eligible to earn credit.

"To give real college credit means so much, not just to the men, but also to their children and families," says Dominica Kimberley Moe, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy and the Community Service Studies program who teaches in the Inside-Out program. "It's something to be proud of. DePaul is a well-known school, and to get college credit from a prestigious institution, I think is life changing."

The idea behind Inside-Out, a national program based at Temple University in Philadelphia, is to make higher education accessible to the inmates, while at the same time allowing participants to learn from each other across profound barriers, according to the program's website. DePaul's program is administered through the Steans Center.

Inside Out program at DePaul

DePaul is the first university to grant inmates course credit at Stateville. (Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Corrections)

In addition to Moe's restorative justice course, DePaul will also offer credit for two other Inside-Out courses at Stateville: Community Service Studies - Law and Public Policy taught by Christina Rivers, associate professor of political science; and Community Service Studies - Masculinity, Justice and Law taught by John Zeigler, director of the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships.

At Cook County Jail, DePaul also will offer credit for a class on healing narrative, taught by The Theatre School's Laura Biagi, for the first time this spring.

"We're proud to be partnering with DePaul on this unique and important endeavor," says Samuel Randall, Cook County Sheriff's Office communications director. "Pre-trial detainees, now more than ever, need a foundation they can build upon when they return to their communities. Experiencing higher education in a college class format is invaluable, and not something that would have been easily available to these inmates prior to this partnership."

The Cook County detainees enrolled in the program are non-violent, have a high school diploma or GED, have an interest in higher education, and are likely to return to the community when their cases are adjudicated, Randall says.

At Stateville, DePaul has long been a leader. The university was the first to offer higher education courses at the maximum security prison after President Bill Clinton offered Pell Grants to prisoners in 1994. DePaul is now the first to offer course credit at the prison.

George Adamson, a chaplain in the Illinois Department of Corrections, says he hopes DePaul's initiative will prompt more colleges and universities to grant course credit, with the goal of one day offering a full degree-granting program.

"The fact that they're giving this incredible gift is astonishing," says Adamson, who administers college courses from 13 institutions. "They're worthy of beyond thanks. This is huge."

He says that at Stateville, where the minimum sentence is 30 years, the courses give inmates access to skills for life outside the prison.

"It has completely motivated people to think closer to the future than the present," he says. "And to build their self-esteem with the fact that they can actually get something accomplished that they thought they couldn't."

Alexandria Boutros, a junior who has taken two courses at Stateville, says the inmates are well prepared for class.

"A lot of the inmates we take class with are very motivated to get out of prison," she says. "A lot of them see if they continue to take class and better themselves, they'll have a better case when they go back to court and hopefully the judge will see them as improved."

At the fall class graduation at Stateville, all 12 inside students passed and received course credit.

"All the students, both inside and out, worked really hard," Moe says. "I was really tough on them. Every assignment had to be completed to pass the course, and if anyone missed a class they had to do an extra assignment to make it up. I didn't want anyone for a moment to think this was a fluff class."

Because outside DePaul students benefit from learning side by side with inside Stateville students, giving course credit is a way to offer inmates something tangible in exchange, says Helen Damon-Moore, associate director of the Steans Center.

"Credit is a way for DePaul to pay back some of that opportunity for students, to be responsible and to steward our resources in a way that is Vincentian," she says.

Read related news:

DePaul students and prison inmates learn together