Failing Grade: Basic Education at Stateville
By: Joseph Dole
With all of the talk about prison reform and refocus on rehabilitation over the past year or two, it’s time to start shining a spotlight on the sad state of basic education in Stateville Correction Center. Other than a person’s age there is no greater indicator of whether someone will recidivate than one’s level of education. With that fact in mind, it’s extremely disheartening how few resources the IDOC and State of Illinois are willing to commit to educational programs, and how arbitrarily men are denied a basic education. The end result is that Stateville has hundreds of men who are either completely or functionally illiterate wasting away in their cells.
In conjunction with the IDOC, the school district half-heatedly offers the equivalent of elementary and high school classes to grown men at Stateville. Elementary level education classes are known as Adult Basic Education (ABE) classes. High school level classes are the well-known General Equivalency Diploma (GED) classes. There are supposed to be five teachers teaching a total of ten classes per day (five days per week). I’ve been here nearly four years and have never seen it accomplished.
Stateville currently employs a total of three teachers who teach a total of five classes (3 – ABE, 2 – GED). Each class holds a maximum of 24 students, but is never at capacity. Guys transfer or go to segregation and it takes weeks or months to replace them. Out of a population of more than 1,600 a maximum of 120 people can work towards getting the education they should have received as children. In reality, less than 100 ever are.
The process of obtaining a GED can take many, many years, even for those who get to skip ABE classes and enroll straight into GED classes. This is due, in no small part, to the combination of ridiculously long waiting lists, arbitrary lockdowns, and teachers not showing up. The good news is that lockdowns of the entire prison have become more infrequent. The bad news is that it that it is almost unheard of that all three teachers actually show up to teach all five classes on any given day. Each morning, I listen as staff announces something along the lines of “school lines on your doors,” and then “only teacher Lyday” or “no teacher Coleman” or “no teacher Graff.” It must be nice to hardly ever have to show up to work and still get paid (the idea of having a substitute teacher or the principal filling in must be too advanced a concept here at Stateville).
With hardly anyone “graduating,” the waiting list to get into classes remains long. Unfortunately, the doesn’t seem to be a problem confined to Stateville. As AFSCME (the guard’s union) informed Governor’s Rauner’s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform in December (2015):
IDOC has long lists of inmates on waiting lists for education programs – including ABE which is supposed to be mandatory. Education, which is one of the most effective ways to recidivism, should be in any program enhancement, and our union is very puzzled why it was not included.
While the incarcerated population appreciates help from any corner in obtaining expanded educational opportunities, it’s hard to swallow when coming from AFSCME – whose members work daily to deny guys a Stateville on education. Guards here routinely protest adding any new courses because they don’t want the increased movement which they will always claim is a security risk (i.e. it’s safer for guards if guys are locked in their cells all day. More dangerous for society when they get out, but hey). Guards also control all movement and routinely refuse to escort students to the school building.
More nefariously, Internal Affairs (IA) is given final say in who can enroll in classes and routinely discriminates against Latinos. One Latino, who hasn’t had a disciplinary infraction in five years (and who attends art classes without incident), was told by IA that he can’t get a basic education because “his name is ringing.” IA has been known to use access to education programs to coerce information from guys or to deny an education in retaliation for being uncooperative, being an alleged gang member, or having a staff assault in their background.
Returning to the subject of Latinos, Stateville doesn’t offer any English as a Second Language class. Thus, many Spanish-speaking immigrants who find themselves here are left incapable of communicating effectively, unable to comprehend staff, the law, rules, regulations, and people who may be angry with them. In 2010, a dozen such men were arbitrarily kicked out of ABE and GED classes for being unable to learn as quickly as native English speakers. Despite numerous grievances over the past six years only one has been allowed back in.
Through no accident, as both policy and practice, Stateville fails to educate the people confined here. This is completely contrary to the stated goals of both the Illinois Constitution and Code of Corrections. Not too long ago, the United Nations recognized education as a basic human right. The IDOC views it as a privilege that has to be earned and a tool for manipulation and retaliation. It’s time the IDOC, and Stateville in particular, ensure that sufficient staff and resources are committed to providing everyone who needs it with a high school education as is their basic human right. When someone goes to segregation for discipline, their education should continue, just as their right to be fed and clothes continues. Moreover, it is imperative that IA’s veto power rescinded immediately.
Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434