Education Justice Project assisting those in and out of prison, but challenges remain

by Ron Berler   /   Jan 26, 2016

Education Justice Project assists those in and out of prison

Restoring Pell Grants for education considered a crucial measure to curbing high recidivism rates

Back in November 1991, Rob Garite was just 15 years old when an intended crime he participated in went badly awry. The incident went unsolved for a few years before Garite, a divorced father with a substance abuse problem and only a ninth-grade education, was charged with murder and ordered to serve 40 years in prison.

In 2014 Garite was paroled after serving 20 years and had the rest of his life ahead of him. If he succeeds outside of prison, it will be due in large part to Rebecca Ginsburg, an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership and director and co-founder of the Education Justice Project (EJP). Ginsburg saw the potential for prisoner education while volunteering as an instructor at San Quentin State Prison when she was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1997.

EJP is a college-in-prison program at Danville Correctional Center (DCC), a medium-security facility in central Illinois that houses more than 1,800 adult male felons, 18 percent of whom were convicted of murder. Currently, it is one of seven U.S. prisons to offer credit-bearing courses beyond the community college level. Enrollment averages 75 students per year. The classes—taught by University of Illinois professors and graduate students—range in subject from Shakespeare to South African history to an introductory course in robotics and environmental sustainability.

Garite, now 39, was one of EJP’s inaugural students, a man determined to make the most of his time in prison. Sarah Lubienski, a professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction who has taught for four years at DCC, was one of Garite's instructors.

"He took my statistics class," she said. "For one of his projects, he interviewed EJP volunteers on outsiders' opinions of incarcerated people, and of their job prospects once they got out. He was very hopeful he'd be able to find work, but he could also see in the data that it would be difficult. He asked good questions and showed great mathematical skills. I gave him an 'A.'"

Garite left prison with a better chance of reconfiguring his life than most, but finding employment has been difficult and he is on the hook to repay a $1,700 student loan and has bills. Restoring Pell Grant eligibility to former prisoners not serving life is a goal of some Illinois legislators, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.         

"Nothing has more impact on my district than unemployment," said Davis, who represents a primarily low-income Chicago district.

In the meantime, Garite still holds out hope for attending college and wants to enroll in the online degree program at University of Illinois at Springfield.

"I've always been optimistic," Garite said. "Until the 15th (of the month), when the bills come due and I don't know how I'm going to do it. I think with a bachelor's degree things would be way different for me."

Read the full Chicago Tribune piece by Ron Berler, author of Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools.