August 12, 2015

Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t work for today’s prisoners

When I worked as a counselor at Menard Prison in the 1970s, Illinois had some 10,000 men and women incarcerated. Today it is reported that nearly 50,000 of our citizens are locked away in Illinois jails and prisons.
And according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rest of the states are apparently keeping up with the pace. With today’s United States penal population reported to be more than 2.2 million adults, it is by far the largest in the world. Not quite one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons. Those figures are five to ten times higher than the rates in Western European countries and other democracies.
Another 5 million are on probation or parole. And that isn’t all. We have more than 70,000 young people in juvenile detention centers—sort of like prep schools for the Big Houses where the real education begins.
But with the recent attention being paid to the failing prison system and the huge budgetary costs to maintain them, some people are beginning to take a longer look at the practice of throwing people in the prisons and getting them off the street and out of sight with little concern for the consequences for the people imprisoned, their families and communities, and for society at large.
One person who is concerned about the ramifications of this situation is Dr. Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the University of Illinois Education Justice Program, whose mission is “to build a model college-in-prison program that demonstrates the positive impacts of higher education upon educated people, their families, the communities from which they come, the host institution, and society as a whole.”
“I’m honored to serve as the director of the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project,” she said, “an initiative that provides higher education within a medium-high Illinois state prison.”
As you might expect, most of a countries’ prison population comes from the portion of the nation’s population that is least educated and most disadvantaged. Most of those incarcerated are under 40 years of age, are disproportionately minority, and many have drug and alcohol addictions. A large number also have mental or physical illness and have neither work preparation nor experience.  
With “longstanding interests in social justice” and a faculty position at the University, Ginsburg is optimistic about the effect of the Education Justice Project that has three sites of work: “Education programs to men incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center; host outreach activities for friends and family members of the incarcerated in Chicago; and sponsor events on the Urbana-Champaign campus and community to promote critical understanding of incarcerations and support those impacted by it.”
After hearing Ginsburg speak about the Education Justice Project at a recent Urbana Rotary lunch, I attended “The Ripple Effect” meeting, a part of the program for “reaching inside the prisons with purpose and love, “ where young people and other community members “share a meal and write cards and letters to individuals in jails and prisons.”
In addition to adults with family members in prison and other participants, there were a number of kids there to write to their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was refreshing to see everybody working to communicate with prisoners and let them know they aren’t forgotten. That seems as important as the educational aspect.
“I'm so happy to be a part of this wonderful group of people,” Annette Taylor said. “ I have family members and friends incarcerated right now. My brother just got released in January after doing 10 years in IDOC. And I'm married to a man that was incarcerated for 20 years.”
During those times she said she did a lot of writing and knows how much it meant for her to stay in touch.
“Most of the time I was the only one sending them mail,” she said. “And a lot of time I was their only communication from the outside world.
I wish Ripple Effect had been around then, but I'm so happy it's here now. It's a place where we can all meet, share our stories and most of all, not be embarrassed about our loved ones. I would love to see more people come out because I know that there's a lot of families affected by having incarcerated loved ones.”
The next meeting of The Ripple Effect is Aug. 17 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Bethel AME Church at 401 E. Park St., Champaign. Whether you have a family member incarcerated or just want to be a part of a worthwhile project designed to provide some “purpose and love” for men in prison, you’re welcome. As the poet John Donne wrote many years ago,No man is an island/Entire of itself/Every man is a piece of the continent/A part of the main. …”