St. Leonard’s High School Teachers from an Albany Park high school serving the formerly incarcerated reflect on their work and six year history.
For the last six years, we have participated in a free, community-based alternative high school for formerly incarcerated men and women. Collectively, we have taught, for hundreds of hours, in a program that has supported over 200 men and women to learn in community and to achieve their high school diploma. Participation in this program has also transformed all of our relationships to learning and to justice in our incarceration nation.
We started in a church basement on Hoyne Avenue, where we yelled over the heavy industrial steel fans used in winter to dry up the leaks and in summer to move around the sweaty air, and we are now next door in the shiny and new Michael Barlow Center for Education and Employment. Six years ago, the neighborhood was dotted with empty lots; today, dry cleaners are on the next block, balconies sprout out of buildings weekly, and the joggers are just around the corner.
The school has space for approximately 25– 30 students per semester, though significantly more apply, and recruitment is through word of mouth. Classes are held in the evenings Monday through Thursday, with two terms a year: September–December and January–April. In addition to community and individual empowerment, skill acquisition, and valuing the previous life experiences, this school works to support participants to be successful at their “next steps”: vocational programs, college, employment, or simply trying to flourish.
Participants, almost all African-American men and women who range in age from mid- twenties to early sixties, struggle with histories marked by denial of access to formal education. While poetic, political, and sophisticated, their English is usually not the “cash language” version, their knowledge of computers is frequently non-existent, and, like many pushed out of public schools, they have deep fear of being labeled, again, as an educational failure. Conscious that the school is a work in progress, with lots of flaws, every year we try make changes to the program based on feedback from teachers and participants. A college and employment fair was added, exit interviews are implemented, curriculum is altered, and more. Currently, we are working to get a free part-time college program off the ground.
While we struggle, collectively, to make change, the program is, to use a bad metaphor, a small umbrella in a permanent hurricane.
Our school is needed, in part, because of bad public policies.
In the last thirty years, not only have schools and prisons become interlocking institutions, and schools often look more like prisons than jails, but state allocations for corrections surpass education:
The cost of incarcerating one adult in Illinois is approximately four and a half times the cost of one child’s annual education. The cost of imprisoning one individual is estimated to be between $20,637 and $25,900 per year. Meanwhile, Illinois mandates only $5,164 per child per year for public education. In 2005, $1.21 billion were allocated for corrections, which represents a 221 percent, or more than three-fold, increase over 1990 figures. 
These budgetary priorities and their corresponding public policies are inefficient, and harmful to select citizens. Research clearly documents that supporting youth to persist and to increase their educational levels would reduce the need for prisons and jails and cost taxpayers less. Just one more year of high school would significantly reduce incarceration (and crime) rates. Raising the male high school graduation rate by simply one percent, would result in the nation saving, by one estimate, $1.4 billion. 
Not only is Illinois, like most states, diverting resources from K–12 and higher education to prisons, incarceration itself offers little to no opportunities for meaningful education. While prisons offer ged programs, a summer 2006 visit to Stateville Prison illustrated that there were three ged classes available, and that men had been waiting to get into these slots—with twenty people per class—for four to five years. In 1994 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act terminated an inmates’ right to apply for Pell Grants (started in 1965) to support college tuition and book fees. Politicians supported this ban by suggesting that the general public did not want their tax dollars going to support college programs for inmates, yet this finding was not supported by polling data. Only 1.2% of the total number of Pell Grants were ever awarded to those in prisons, and the erasure of Pell Grants for those in prisons did not result in new non-incarcerated undergraduate students receiving any additional financial aid.  By 1995, almost all of the nation’s 350 college programs were shut down. Multiple research studies overwhelmingly document that meaningful education in prisons reduces recidivism, yet this is not our public policy. 
In 2004, we started to consistently produce a small booklet of writings from the program every semester. Contributions chronicle individuals’ histories of under-education and extreme poverty, the significant health issues that their incarceration exacerbated, struggles with addiction and drugs, and the ongoing consequences of systemic white supremacy. The booklet also included poetry and writings about survival, flourishing, love and parenting.
Securing living-wage employment is a constant battle and a recurrent theme in classroom discussions and writing. Often participants work all day, and then go to a night shift job after class ends. Others cannot work and are confined, via electronic monitoring, to nearby residences that provide accessible housing for a fraction of the approximately 30,000 people that exit prisons and jails every year in Illinois, and return mainly to six of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods—Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park.  If employed, the work is usually day labor, cleaning, or fast food service, or jobs in organizations that support those exiting prisons or jails, such as drug counseling, hiv and health education, or transitional housing, as these employers value their expertise.
While so much more than “formerly incarcerated”—we are lovers, sisters, parents, mothers, workers, poets, thinkers, agitators, comics—criminal records shape entry and participation into the labor market. Those with felony convictions are denied access to careers and employments formally, through prohibitions on licensure, and informally, when employers simply discriminate on the basis of disclosed histories of conviction and/or incarceration. A 2002 survey cites that the stigma of a conviction, in addition to formal prohibitions, creates bleak employment prospects:
A survey of employers in five large cities found that 65% would not knowingly hire an ex- convict. Many would not be able to do so legally anyway… In Illinois ex-felons are banned from some 57 different professions, including such jobs as manicurist and barber. 
Every semester, when identifying an issue of importance to advocate around, almost a third of the group writes about employment opportunities for those exiting prisons and jails. For example, Tonya and Darlene, from the fall group of 2006 write:
“Every time I look for any opportunities to search for a job, they come with the same description: ‘We’ll be calling you in two weeks’ and never do. Why should we have to suffer for the mistakes we’ve made? Wasn’t jail enough? Don’t we have rights even though were ex-offenders? How long will this last or where does it end? We don’t deserve to be treated like criminals in society.” —Tanya
“Being constantly reminded of my background sometimes makes me feel like a person’s mind is already made up about me before I’ve had a chance to sell myself. For example, job applications, not all, but the majority, ask do you have a criminal conviction? They say this wouldn’t necessarily be held against you but, as soon as the ball’s in my park so, I think, there it is! They skip my years of experience and other qualities for the job.” —Darlene
Incarceration creates a civil, and often physical, death. Not only can those in prison not vote when released, but minimum-wage employment options are limited and frequently depressing, lacking any kind of healthcare benefits. Those with drug-related convictions are denied access to housing and welfare resources (and until 2006 also post-secondary educational benefits).  Incarceration also makes one an unfit parent; the 2005 decision of the Illinois Supreme Court that found Detra Welch, one of program’s graduates, to be an unfit parent, terminating her parental rights, was based only on her history of incarceration.  In addition to this diminishment of basic rights, incarceration also facilitates physical death through the hazardous and inadequate conditions in US prisons and jails: overcrowding in unhealthy facilities, substandard health (including dental) and mental health care.  Participants in our program recognize this, astutely, but are often currently only in the economic, political and personal position where the most radical change they can advocate for is their own flourishing, not just survival.
Working in this project has changed the “teachers” immensely. In a way, we are an un-likely group: Multi-racial, not all US born, and from community organizations, universities, radically progressive religious orders, corporate America, self-employment and private practices, and more. Some of us are under- or unemployed. Some of us have personal relationships with prisons and incarceration, and some do not.
This program has changed our ideas about justice, prisons and the role of incarceration in our nation. It is at best naively romantic (and at worst vain), to end with centering us, the teachers and what we have learned. But it is also simultaneously useful to invert a gaze of scrutiny from those most impacted by the prison industrial complex, to those, also impacted, but with more power and privilege, to ask us how we have been moved through this work, and then, what we will do with our access to resources and power to make change.
“When I tell people that I teach a class to formerly incarcerated men and women each week, I always get the same reaction. A raise of the eyebrows accompanied by the question, ‘Do you feel safe enough to do something like that?’ Before my first class, yes, I was a little worried about what to expect. Within the first five minutes, everything I ever thought about prison and formerly incarcerated people was forever changed. I learned that these are good, hard-working people that are looking to support themselves financially in a clean and sober environment. They make no excuses about their past. What I see them struggling with is that the stigma of prison does not allow them to leave that past, that they have dearly paid for, in the past. I have learned that there is so much unknown about an ‘ex-offender.’ When I get the reaction that I get when I tell people what I do, the question usually comes from members of corporate America that are in hiring positions. My response now is, ‘I feel more than safe! In fact, I’d love it if you came down one night and helped me out with a class so you could meet these great men and women.’” —Robyn
“Participating in this high school program is part of what turned me into a prison abolitionist. White supremacy and poverty are too stark to pretend that just a few reforms or fixes will improve our prison system. Yes, people do things that are ‘wrong,’ but connecting these wrongs to real people, to histories of injustices, to access to resources, and to private and public traumas, is part of what I have learned. Also, I recognized that, really, for just about every tragedy, prisons only make matters worse. My education, through allies and participants in this school, has moved to really think about what a world without prisons would look like.” —Erica
“Participating in this program has been substantive in my personal growth and development and it has helped to center me in what I believe I was brought here to do: work with people to make positive change in society. I have developed an immense respect for the students—most of whom have come from levels of self-hate and destructive behaviors so deep that it is hard to imagine—to becoming men and women who have the strength to rise up and be an example that transformation is possible with the will and support. I firmly believe that significant changes in public policy in relation to criminal justice are necessary and will happen if we continue to work with these pioneers to aid them in seeing that they have no limitations and that this is work we must do. We don’t have a choice.” —Jitu
“Through teaching here, I am learning that change is possible—both personally and within communities. And maybe that means change is possible nationally and globally. But change is difficult. There are dead-ends. Caring helps. Breaking down the hierarchy (not knowing anymore who is teaching and who is learning) helps. What helps most of all is that we stand together firmly as a community. In this peaceful, gentle place, we wade through centuries of atrocities. We cry. We navigate our paths forward. We have fun, too.” —Ajitha
1 Kane-Willis, K., Janichek J., & Clark, D. (2006). “Intersecting Voices: Impacts of Illinois’ Drug Policies.” The Illinois Consortium on Drug Policies. Retrieved December 20, 2006 from the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs website: http://www.roosevelt.edu/ima/pdfs/intersectingVoices.pdf
2 Lochner, L. & Moretti, E. (2004). “The effect of education on crime: Evidence from prison inmates, arrests, and self-reports.” American Economic Review, Vol. 94, pp. 155-189.
3 Taylor, J. M. (1993, January 25). “Pell Grants for Prisoners.” The Nation; Page, J. (2004). “Eliminating the enemy: The import of denying prisoners access to higher education in Clinton’s America.” Punishment & Society, Vol. 6(4), pp. 357-378.
4 Fine, M., Torre, M., Boudin, K., Bowen, I., Clark, J., Hylton, D., Martinez, M. “Missy”, Roberts, R., Smart, P. & Upegui, D. (2001, September). Collaborative research by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and women in prison at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison Retrieved December 21, 2006, from http://www.changingminds.ws
5 La Vigne, N. G., Mamalian, C. A., Travis, J., & Visher, C. (2003). “A portrait of prisoner reentry in Illinois.” Urban Institute. Urban Institute Report. Retrieved April 17, 2003 from http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410662
6 The Economist. (2002, August 16). “A Stigma thatNever Fades.” pp. 25-27.
7 Allard, P. (2002). Life Sentences: Denying WelfareBenefits to Women Convicted of Drug Offenses. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.
8 Marlan, T. (2005, April 8). “Prisoner of the Past.” Chicago Reader.
9 von Zielbauer, P. (2005, February 27). “As health care in jails goes private, 10 days can be a death sentence.” New York Times, pp. 1:1; Cooper, C. (2002). “A Cancer Grows.” The Nation. May 6. Retrieved June 15, 2005 from http://www.thenation.com/doc/20020506/cynthiacooper