Since 2014-2015, educators around the state of IL began to come together as a way to support each other to teach in state prisons and navigate the politics and punitive nature of the prison system. These conversations started by phone, in my living room, and in university classrooms throughout the city. We often gathered to negotiate book and material bans, teachers getting kicked out of the prison, supporting students on both sides of the wall and more. Eventually the group formally organized as the IL Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP). We are an organization that seeks to support students and formerly incarcerated students access higher education; we hold monthly and quarterly gatherings to support of faculty interested in starting and sustaining education programs in state prisons or jails; and we work with state legislators and the Dept. of Corrections to implement policy to create open access to education in prison and beyond, no matter a person’s conviction or length of sentence.
For the last three years I have been on the steering committee of IL-CHEP. The Steering Committee sets the organizations agenda and priorities and chairs each sub-committee. When COVID-19 hit we knew the serious threat this would pose to students and families of incarcerated people. We quickly organized some 1500 people to sign a letter to Illinois Gov. Pritzker to release people to save lives. We also organized to educate and put public pressure on state officials to reduce the prison population as the only way to control the virus. Below is a body of work I co-developed and co-organized during the spring and summer of 2020. Working with artists and organizers I co-facilitated events, actions, teach-ins to confront the issues of health care and COVID-19 in state prisons.
In Jan of 2021, IL-CHEP was granted funding by the Andrew Mellon Foundation for which I am a co-PI. This funding has allowed us to hire staff to further stabilize the coalition and help it grow. I have co-led a hiring and on-boarding process for the first ever IL-CHEP staff. We see this work as a critical an necessary organization to ensure open access policies to education in prison and as a resource to educators to sustain programs to people in prison and deliver high quality and critical education.