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Coalition expands opportunities for higher education in Illinois prisons

Stories | 05.28.24

Angel Pantoja was only 17 years old when, in 1999, he was convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve 23 years in the Illinois prison system.

Angel Pantoja Headshot

Angel Pantoja

After his sentencing, Pantoja remembers walking into a unit full of much older adults.

“These men, who were about 30 or 40 years old, they would look at me and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’” Pantoja said. “I would tell them what happened, but they would stop me and say, ‘No. I mean, what the hell are you doing in here? You’re just a kid. You could be my son.’”

Initially placed with incarcerated adults due to an administrative oversight, Pantoja’s plight highlights the harsh reality of juvenile sentencing within the criminal justice system. It took over two months to rectify the error and transfer him to a juvenile unit, where he embarked on a decades-long pursuit for a brighter future — starting with earning his GED.

“My teachers there would ask the same questions: ‘What are you doing here? You should be getting ready to go to college,’” Pantoja said.  “In my mind, I was asking myself, ‘Did I just throw away my potential?’”

“Though incarcerated, I wanted to make sure I still had control of my future,” he added. “I asked myself the question: How can I be the man I want to become while living in prison? For me, education was the key.”

“For me, education was the key.”

Pantoja earned his GED through the Cook County Jail school system in 2001. Over the years, through taking college courses at various Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) facilities, he earned his associate degree. And in November 2022, following his release from IDOC, he enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University to pursue a career in social work.

With that perseverance, Pantoja also emerged as a fervent advocate for higher education in prisons — and his story is one of many that epitomizes the mission of the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP), a project of Adler University’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice (IPSSJ).

Stronger together

Created in 2016, IL-CHEP is a coalition of more than 85 members and 200+ community supporters, including educators, students, universities, community based organizations, and others committed to bringing higher education to Illinois prisons and jails.

Today, of the 28 IDOC institutions, only eight have higher education in prison programs, with only 3% of the prison population having access to college-level courses. This includes Big Muddy Correctional Center, where Adler University provides an undergraduate online program to give incarcerated men an opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology.

“It’s the reason why I believe the work that IL-CHEP is doing is so important,” said Pantoja, who served as IL-CHEP project coordinator for two years before leaving in January to become a reentry policy coordinator under the Office of Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. “I know how higher education can change the lives of incarcerated people. I lived it.”

The creation of IL-CHEP stems from the 2016 state budget crisis, which halted educational programs at IDOC institutions due to funding shortages. Even when schools had a contract with the state, the funds to pay instructors stopped. The schools found themselves at a crossroad.

Flor Esquivel sits in front of a large window with buildings blurred in the background. She is wearing a blouse and blazer.

Flor Esquivel

“At that time, the schools that taught in the prison systems worked in silos. Nobody knew how each school was responding to the effects of the budget crisis,” said Flor Esquivel, IPSSJ and IL-CHEP administrative director. “It became evident that a unified approach was needed to address the emerging challenges.”

Esquivel, who joined IL-CHEP in 2021, said the founders first met in members’ apartments to strategize, discuss best practices, and find creative ways to continue their programs in prisons — with or without funding from the state.

“That’s when they realized they needed a stronger, more centralized way to meet with IDOC administration to discuss ways to address challenges,” she said. “And IL-CHEP was born.”

Today, IL-CHEP and IDOC meet quarterly to find solutions to any new or lingering issues educators and Higher Education in Prison (HEP) programs face.

“I often see myself as a negotiator between both parties,” said Esquivel. “They both have their differences, but ultimately the goals are the same — to make sure we provide quality higher education for those serving time in our prisons.”

Photo of students from North Park

Education as a human right

Illinois has a history of standing on the forefront of prison reform. Keeping with this tradition, in 1952, it became the first state to offer face-to-face higher education in prison to incarcerated scholars. That grew over the following decades and by 1992, all prisons in Illinois offered some form of higher education in prison program. However, the 1994 Crime Bill dealt a blow to this progress by removing Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated scholars, leading to a decline in higher education programs by the early 2000s.

Today, with IL-CHEP, the work to reestablish education as a human right for all in Illinois is once again gaining steam. The group’s work includes advocating for the expansion of higher education in prison programs.

Image of IL-CHEP logoCurrently, less than 3% of individuals incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) — about 900 out of 29,000 individuals — currently have the opportunity to enroll in higher education programming. With this stark reality, IL-CHEP is spearheading efforts to reclaim education as a fundamental human right for all incarcerated individuals in the state.

“We want to make sure that the number of individuals going into incarceration decreases while the number of incarcerated individuals getting education continues to grow,” said Esquivel.

According to IL-CHEP, higher education in prisons develops the dignity, sense of self, and social relationships of people who are incarcerated. Citing the United Nations Human Rights Council, the group emphasizes that education in detention fulfills human development and underscores respect for individual potential.

Investing in prison education has also proven to be cost-effective. For every $1 invested in prison education, taxpayers save $4-$5 in re-incarceration costs during the first three years post-release, according to a Northwestern University study.

Lastly, higher education in prisons can increase racial equity by providing schooling to populations that are unrepresented in higher education. While as of 2018, Black students represented only 13.4% of college students overall, they comprised 30% of Second Chance Pell students, a program that funds selected higher education in prison programs.

Photo of graduates IL-CHEP

Two-part mission

“People getting incarcerated at a young age or close to adulthood, they’re often stuck in a system where there’s often no hope,” said Esquivel. “But if they’re able to receive an education, they’re able to get training and build their career, and once they’re released, they are able to integrate into society, get a better job, and have the opportunity to become more prosperous.”

Image of the IL-CHEP Steering Committee“That word ‘opportunity’ is very important to us,” said Esquivel. “Making sure that opportunity is available is our first mission.”

The second piece is influencing or challenging policies within prisons. IDOC, in its role, creates administrative directives. But since IL-CHEP’s creation, its Policy Committee has been allowed to provide recommendations and consultations to IDOC, particularly on policies affecting educational programs in their institutions.

“That’s been a huge win for us,” said Esquivel. “Ultimately, our voice is what’s going to change the trajectory of higher education in prisons.”

IL-CHEP’s various committees are created based on need. During COVID-19, it created the Soap and Sanitation Committee, which advocated to ensure students had access to hygiene and toiletry items.

“We formed the committee to organize and collect donations for our students until the issue was resolved,” said Esquivel.

Through the Policy Committee’s work, IL-CHEP was able to create survey to get insight from students and potential students about their needs and challenges.

“I traveled to five prisons, dropped off the surveys, and then went back to collect them,” said Esquivel. “A year later, we finally have real data that will allow us to plan ahead and discuss with IDOC regarding the needs and challenges of our students who are inside.”

More work ahead

Achieving a working relationship with IDOC has been one of IL-CHEP’s big wins since its inception.

“In the beginning, at times meetings were heated and contentious,” said Esquivel. “But both groups stuck with continuing to meet because they recognized that some sort of partnership and collaboration was the only way to really address higher education in prison challenges.”

Photo of Angel Pantoja and Flor Esquivel

Flor Esquivel and Angel Pantoja, who recently joined the Office of Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton as a reentry policy coordinator.

Another milestone was the creation of a higher education in prison task force that met with state legislators and created 31 recommendations in 2022.

“We now have the ears of our policymakers, and that’s huge,” she said.

Additionally, IL-CHEP has launched a website, which has become a hub for new research, videos, factsheets, and other resources.

IL-CHEP founders also chose Adler University to house its group office, through the University’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice. Having a central physical space allows the group and its administrative team to apply for grants and meet — because there’s a lot more work to be done.

Esquivel said her vision for IL-CHEP is that it continues to be foundationally sound as it continues to move forward. She said she wants to continue bringing in systems-impacted persons, like Pantoja, to continue the work of expanding higher education in prison opportunities — whether at IL-CHEP or beyond.

“Ultimately, our voice is what’s going to change the trajectory of higher education in prisons.”

While working on earning his associate degree while at Danville Correctional Center, Pantoja also became a teacher and mentor.

“When I was in class, whether discussing philosophy or a chapter of a book, I felt free,” said Pantoja, who knows first-hand the benefits of higher education and the opportunities it creates. “The work IL-CHEP does is very complex, but at the heart of it, it’s really very simple: convince more our elected officials and universities to invest more time and resources in our prisons.”

“It’s the reason why I believe the work that IL-CHEP is doing is so important,” said Pantoja, who accepted a new role in January as the reentry policy coordinator under the Office of Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. “I know how higher education can change the lives of incarcerated people. I lived it.”

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