Illinois Higher Education in Prison Task Force: Expert Testimony - Education Justice Project

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Higher education in prison experts Tim Barnett and Sharon Varallo presented at the Illinois Higher Education in Prison Task Force on May 5, 2022.

Sharon Vallaro is the Executive Director of the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP), which allows incarcerated individuals at East Moline Correctional Center the opportunity to earn bachelor’s degrees. Professor Vallaro emphasized that non-credit courses were the foundation of the Augustana Prison Education program. “Evidence suggests that all by themselves non-credit bearing college courses reduce recidivism and improve prison environments for incarcerated persons and for prison staff by reducing violence and increasing hope.” She emphasized that non-credit-bearing courses give students more control and creative freedom to decide what topics they want to learn. 

Tim Barnett is a Director of University Curriculum at the ​​Prison+Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP), a visual arts and education project that connects teaching artists and scholars to incarcerated students at Stateville Maximum Security Prison through classes and workshops. It also offers a tuition-free degree-granting program in partnership with the University Without Walls at Northeastern Illinois University. Professor Barnett stated in his expert statement that, “Uncredited classes are also important because it is hard to get colleges to bring classes with credits and full-fledged degree programs to prisons right off the bat. Most degree programs grow out of small efforts.” Tim also assures that “some of these new programs will grow into credit-bearing programs, while, in the meantime, offering education with a value that cannot be measured by credits alone.” 

Both experts stated that the prison environment itself hinders efforts to provide higher education in prison. As Sharon stated, the “on the ground” challenges include space restrictions, faculty security clearance delays, and materials clearance protocols. Within the program she directs, it can take between one day to six weeks to get  educational materials approved. Tim affirmed these challenges. “Until we see prisons as more like part of the public domain, as things that the public and educators should have access to, and see people in prison as people with rights to education, it’s going to be a real challenge because the people there are seen as unimportant and not mattering,” he said.

As educators who are advocating for all individuals to have an access to education, Tim and Sharon emphasized the importance of a coalition of like-minded individuals. While both recognized the areas in which Illinois is lacking with respect to higher education opportunities in prison, they acknowledged the impactful work of Illinois’s statewide coalition higher education in prison, IL-CHEP. ​Sharon stated, “The pool of talent in the HEP community in Illinois is broad and deep and it is known nationwide. Illinois has everything it needs to be a leader in higher ed in prison. Explicitly valuing and supporting all types of education, emphasizing in-person instruction, improving turnaround time and access to technology can ensure Illinois can be known as a leader not just in the Midwest but across the entire nation.”

Sharon’s advice for individuals interested in higher education in prison is to “learn about college in prison, know that for every $1 spent on higher education $500 in taxes are saved, and vote for people that are interested in the health of their community by supporting higher ed in prison.” 

Tim’s advice is to “​​create new dynamics for collaboration among educators, prison administration and staff, and students, all of whom have much to offer to the educational process. Without new kinds of relationships, our efforts will be limited.” 

The Higher Education in Prison Task Force was created by the Illinois legislature in October 2021. The purpose of the Task Force is to assess the current conditions of higher education in Illinois prisons, and identify how the state can improve the access, quality, and support of prison higher education. 

You can read Tim Barnett’s and Sharon Varallo’s full testimonies here:–LN6Xw2Ww