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This education program gives incarcerated women a better chance at life beyond prison

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The best way to keep an incarcerated person from returning to prison is to give them access to higher education while they're serving time. Research shows the benefits, but most college programs at prisons are for men. And one of the few programs for women is at the Logan Correctional Center in central Illinois. Ana Savchenko of member station WBEZ visited that facility, and she has this report.

ANNA SAVCHENKO, BYLINE: A barbed wire fence wraps around the Logan Correctional Center. But from the inside, the education building looks like a regular high school. There are chairs, whiteboards, a few posters on the walls. And on a recent afternoon, about a dozen women gather in one of the classrooms.

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SAVCHENKO: The women are the first cohort of the Prison Education Program. It's run by Northwestern University and the Illinois Department of Corrections. People who participate can earn a college degree. Twenty-seven-year-old Chelsea Raker is sitting in a corner. She has tattoos running up her arms and one underneath her chin.

CHELSEA RAKER: It says, take risks and prosper.

SAVCHENKO: When did you get it?

RAKER: Not too long before I got incarcerated. I tell a lot of young people who ask me, it says, I've made bad decisions when I was 21.

SAVCHENKO: She's sort of the class clown, but the young mother gets emotional when she talks about the program. To her, it's more than about getting a diploma. It's about validation.

RAKER: Just knowing that you are deserving of accomplishing something or having the opportunities to do things that normal 21-year-olds would do. Pursuing an education, pursuing your dreams just makes you feel human.

SAVCHENKO: The program began as a pilot project at a men's prison. A million-dollar grant allowed it to expand to the woman at Logan. And research shows that programs like these can break generational cycles of poverty and incarceration, says director Jennifer Lackey.

JENNIFER LACKEY: Within five years, over 75% of those who've been released from prison will be rearrested. And yet for those who leave prison with a bachelor's degree, the recidivism rate is roughly around 5%.

SAVCHENKO: Still, there's often a lack of willingness to invest in prison college programs, says Erin Castro. She's the head of a prison education project in Utah.

ERIN CASTRO: We have all sorts of assumptions about the worthiness of folks incarcerated. There seems to be still this narrative of, well, let's just get them career technical certificates, and that should be fine.

SAVCHENKO: Even in prisons that do offer higher education, there are challenges. During class at Logan, the students think of ways to improve their cells, which they say they have a hard time studying in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Murphy beds. Can we please get Murphy beds?

SAVCHENKO: Then they share their ideas with the class.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Study space, i.e. desks and chairs, in the cells.

SAVCHENKO: They also have a hard time communicating. For security reasons, computers aren't allowed. There's no university library, and students write their assignments and letters to professors by hand. Even so, 52-year-old year old Patricia Ouska calls the program a lifeline.

PATRICIA OUSKA: Had Northwestern not came, I probably would be sitting in my room doing nothing.

SAVCHENKO: Uzca's been in prison for 30 years. She was convicted of murder and armed robbery when she was young. She's seeking clemency. And through Northwestern, she's already helped set up a restorative justice corps. It helps young people resolve their problems in nonviolent ways. Though the program is young, advocates hope more women will be able to take part as people realize the advantages the college for the incarcerated can bring. For NPR News, I'm Anna Savchenko in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Savchenko