Student group works to improve literacy rates at Cook County Jail

Rachel Marciano
January 11, 2018

Since the beginning of the academic year, a new student group, Students Against Incarceration, has held a book group with inmates at Cook County Jail. After diving into the works of authors such as Viktor Frankl and Howard Zinn, the group realized having dictionaries on hand may help the inmates better understand the reading material and improve overall literacy. For the last several months, the group has been collecting dictionaries for incarcerated people. 

Alexandria Boutros

Alexandria Boutros and other members of Students Against Incarceration are collecting dictionaries for the group's book club with inmates at Cook Country Jail. (DePaul University/Helen Damon-Moore)

"Dictionaries are such an important resource for our book club," says Rebecca Bretz, a junior at DePaul and a founder of Students Against Incarceration. "They allow our club members to expand their knowledge and vocabulary as we go through our readings."

Each week, the DePaul students sit down with more than 15 incarcerated people at Cook County Jail to discuss their most recent reading. Similar to a literature class, the book club members discuss themes in the text and the students help inmates with unfamiliar words and phrases. That's where the dictionaries come into play.

"Through this ongoing collection drive, we hope to gather enough dictionaries so all the men in our book club have one to reference when we aren't there to help them," Bretz says.

After numerous discussions throughout the 2016-17 academic year about the need for a DePaul student group focused on advocating for change in the criminal justice system, Students Against Incarceration was officially formed in spring 2017. The group began working with Cook County Jail the following quarter.

Open to the DePaul community, the group's mission is to create an environment where people interested in addressing issues in the criminal justice system can come to be in community, educate themselves and others, and take action.

"We want to educate the DePaul community on issues surrounding the criminal justice system in hopes more people will be inspired to fight for change in the system," says Alexandria Boutros, a senior at DePaul and a founder of the group. "We also aim to work alongside incarcerated and criminalized populations as they strive to change and better their lives. The book club is just a small step in the right direction."

Beyond its book club, Students Against Incarceration also is working with state representatives and students from the University of Chicago to bring awareness to other issues in Illinois prisons.

"We hope to continue engaging students and members of the broader community on these topics," Boutros says. "Public awareness on human rights violations is essential for change, so it is important for us to continue building a coalition of passionate students and citizens."

The student group developed as a branch of the university's involvement with the Inside-Out program. Aligned with the Steans Center's philosophy of social justice and respect for the human dignity of all, Inside-Out focuses on reciprocity through the exchange and mobilization of knowledge. The goal is not a unidirectional transfer of resources, but on helping students - inside and out - reach their full capacity as human beings.

If you would like to learn more about Students Against Incarceration or donate dictionaries, please contact Rebecca Bretz