Education is a positive way to avoid incarceration, reintegrate former prisoners, and promote community safety

Restorative justice programs in schools and higher education within prisons help, respectively, to prevent arrests and behaviors leading to violence and crimes among young students and offer reintegration options and opportunities for a dignified life for those exiting prison. All this contributes to community safety and creates opportunities for a better life

James Soto obtained a bachelor’s degree thanks to the Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program after being exonerated. (Courtesy of Flor Esquivel)

James Soto obtained a bachelor’s degree thanks to the Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program after being exonerated. (Courtesy of Flor Esquivel) Crédito: Cortesía

All local news outlets captured the moment when James Soto left prison, embraced his family, and ceased to be a prisoner to enroll in law school at the age of 62. With the support of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Soto has a second chance in life, which he is using to complete law school, become a lawyer, pursue a professional career, and help other incarcerated individuals.

During his 42 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit, Soto dedicated part of his time to learn more about the laws that allowed his imprisonment in 1981 and those that eventually helped him regain his freedom in 2023.

Soto is one of the graduates from the higher education program in prison offered by Northwestern University at the Stateville Correctional Center, an hour southwest of Chicago. This university is one of more than 13 educational institutions that are part of the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP). This initiative is supported by Adler University’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice.

Through post-secondary courses taught by universities and community colleges within prisons, Soto earned a bachelor’s degree. Education was the bridge to freedom and the continuation of life after prison. Less than 3% of incarcerated individuals in Illinois have the opportunity to enroll in a Higher Education in Prison (HEP) program. Soto was one of the few who participated in this program among more than 29,500 inmates registered by the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2023.

The recovery work does not begin when a former prisoner is released but rather in the very prison where they are detained, assured Flor Esquivel, administrative director of the IL-CHEP project, in an interview with La Raza.

In correctional facilities, various programs are offered: culinary arts classes, high school certification, and trade and craft learning, among others. The IL-CHEP initiative goes beyond these courses and offers higher education options.

IL-CHEP supports policies, studies, and state legislation highlighting higher education as a significant pathway to social reintegration and focuses on advocating for increased access to quality higher education opportunities for prisoners. IL-CHEP and its more than 13 educational institutions with programs in prisons are part of HEP in Illinois.

One of these participating universities is Northwestern University, from which Soto graduated. He was sentenced by a jury to life imprisonment without parole in 1981 after a shootout in which two young people died. Soto and his cousin David Ayala, in whose trial no physical evidence or eyewitnesses were presented linking them to that crime, served the longest unjust sentence in Illinois history.

During his more than four-decade stay in prison, Soto obtained his bachelor’s degree through Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program and took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to continue studying law upon leaving jail and help others in his situation.

“If there is someone sitting in a cell, man or woman, who feels they have lost all hope, I hope to be able to help some of them,” Soto said during a press conference after being granted freedom in December 2023.

Soto exemplifies that it is never too late to go to school, that ending up in prison is not the end of life, and that education offers a second chance to reinvent oneself and excel.

Parents who are part of COFI, a community organization that advocates for the rights of low-income families, fight against the ‘zero tolerance’ policy in schools. (Courtesy of COFI)
Crédito: Cortesía

Interrupting the cycle created by punitive school practices

Education is an important component that contributes to the prevention of community violence. IL-CHEP focuses on empowering inmates and creating leaders who subsequently transform their communities.

At the beginning of her career, Esquivel’s main task was to work with sixth-grade students under house arrest and students who entered the penitentiary system, providing them with services to help them reintegrate into high school.

“I began working with this population and realized that many of my students were not attending school after being released but were [attending classes] while incarcerated in a juvenile justice center or prison,” Esquivel, who has been working for IL-CHEP for almost three years, told La Raza.

Through this effort, Esquivel said she was exposed to the concept of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ which describes the disproportionate tendency to incarcerate minors and young adults due to punitive school practices.

“In some schools, tactics very similar to those of prisons are used, including metal detectors, isolation periods, and very strong and punitive policies,” explained Esquivel, who took her current position to help connect more individuals with learning opportunities.

According to Esquivel, when a student is consistently accused of misconduct, the likelihood of eventually being referred to a juvenile justice center increases. From that moment on, these students begin to be categorized as criminals.

Fatemeh Momeni, director of research at the University of Chicago Education Lab, co-author of the study titled From Retributive to Restorative: An Alternative Approach to Justice, noted that zero-tolerance school policies resulted in the suspension of more than 3.5 million American students in the 2012 school year.

For Esquivel, it has been very revealing to see the education system from classrooms located behind bars, the place she tried to avoid for the students she previously worked with.

In 2019, the report by Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Stephen B. Billings, and David J. Deming titled The School to Prison Pipeline: Long-Run Impacts of School Suspensions on Adult Crime, found that students assigned to a school with a suspension rate one standard deviation higher have a 15 to 20% higher likelihood of being arrested and incarcerated as adults.

“I realized that some schools practically function as prisons, which are like a campus with different units,” Esquivel said, who measures the success of the initiative through the number of graduates who go through one of the programs and can leave jail, recover, reintegrate, and become leaders in their communities.

Incarcerated students can aspire to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees through the education programs offered by universities collaborating in the IL-CHEP initiative. However, they have not yet managed to provide a doctorate nor offer courses to obtain the high school completion certificate (GED).

However, Esquivel said there is a waiting list for the GED. “We have had some students who have waited up to seven years to obtain a GED certificate in jail,” Esquivel added.

That situation significantly impacts IL-CHEP’s efforts because inmates need to complete these steps to enroll in higher education.

Challenges in establishing an educational program inside a prison

One of IL-CHEP’s main priorities is to provide better quality higher education from inside prisons, with the support of more than a dozen universities and community colleges.

Establishing one of these programs in one of Illinois’ 28 correctional facilities is full of challenges. It is a rigorous process, and one of the most complicated obstacles is receiving the required approval for faculty, including professors and volunteers, to enter the prison and offer classes. According to Esquivel, the process can take from three months to a year. Subsequently, IL-CHEP coordinates with educational institutions to guide them and ensure their program is properly configured to meet prison requirements.

In 1952, Illinois was the first state to offer access to education programs and provide individualized instruction to prisoners within prisons. Forty years later, all prisons in Illinois had a version of this programming. However, in 1994, Title II of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act provided funds to expand correctional facilities and eliminated the eligibility of incarcerated students to apply for federal grants, including the Pell Grant. Many inmates relied on this federal grant to cover the cost of their education. According to IL-CHEP, by 2000, educational programming in prisons had significantly decreased.

In 2022, Illinois made history again in this area by establishing the Illinois Higher Education in Prison Task Force, which published 31 recommendations to expand higher education within Illinois prisons. Currently, Illinois has 28 prisons, and a large part of the 20 that still do not have a higher education program is located in the southern part of the state. One of the tasks of this group is to get more state representatives in southern Illinois to support the provision of higher education programs in prisons.

Another challenge to be overcome to connect more inmates with higher education programs is to gain support from universities in the southern part of the state where prisons are located in very remote areas. From Chicago, a professor would have to travel five to six hours round trip to teach a class. Connecting a nearby university with prisons in these areas would be much more efficient.

Additionally, IL-CHEP is working on a letter campaign for inmates to send messages to their state representatives and university presidents to encourage more institutions to join the project and provide some type of education program in the 20 Illinois prisons that still lack this option.

IL-CHEP remains in communication with the Illinois Department of Corrections to mitigate problems that may result in the program’s reduced effectiveness.

The good news is that, after three decades, eligibility for the Pell Grant has been approved again, and now incarcerated individuals can apply for this financial aid. The cost of many universities and community colleges can be covered with these grants, creating conditions for more educational institutions to join this project.

However, for an incarcerated student to receive financial aid, they must be enrolled in an education program. If there is no such program in the prison, they cannot apply for the grant.

Parents who are part of COFI, a community organization that advocates for the rights of low-income families, fight against the ‘zero tolerance’ policy in schools. (Courtesy of COFI)
Crédito: Cortesía

Helping prisoners reintegrate into society

Additionally, IL-CHEP collaborates with community and social reintegration organizations to support individuals upon leaving prison.

Some of the participating schools allow individuals to continue their studies after leaving prison. For example, North Park University has a holistic and very comprehensive approach. If an individual leaves prison and is still participating in the program, the university helps them find a place to live. Many of the institutions have employment programs and promote the continuation of the educational program at the university facilities.

This program has a profound impact on recidivism. Specifically in Illinois, inmates who participate in these educational programs in prison are less likely to commit crimes and return to prison. According to results in the annual impact report of the Illinois Department of Corrections, in the 3 years after prisoners are released, the recidivism rate of graduates of prison educational programs in fiscal year 2019 was 26.2%, while the overall recidivism rate was 36.7% that year.

The reintegration process is rigorous. “It’s an area where we were learning what their needs are, including access to permanent housing, as many were coming out,” Esquivel said.

Before a former convict can seek to continue their classes or return to school after leaving prison, they must satisfy other primary needs. A large portion of this preventive work is related to the effectiveness with which a job, housing, and a solid support system are secured to decrease the likelihood that a former convict will revert to old negative habits.

In turn, there are some organizations that offer housing with strict rules and do not accept people with certain criminal records. For individuals convicted of sexual offenses, finding housing after leaving prison is even more difficult. In an effort to mitigate this obstacle, IL-CHEP is compiling information about reintegration services and their requirements.

Recently, the project established an alumni committee that acts as mentors and supports students upon leaving prison. The students who are part of this group are an example of the stability that can be achieved by connecting with programs and reintegration services into society.

“Alumni can tell those coming out ‘I went through what you’re going through, and these are the programs and services that helped me’…,” Esquivel explained.

DePaul University has a program inside and outside of prison that connects students inside with those outside to create a support bond.

In Illinois, the number of prisons is not increasing as in other states. In fact, facilities have been reduced and closed, and experts expect education to be a solution for fewer people to be incarcerated and for more people already in prison to take advantage of the program to be self-sufficient and have the tools to make coherent decisions and not commit another crime.

Studies indicate that it costs the state more money to maintain and build additional prisons than to fund the education program. The 2015 RAND nonprofit institution report found that for every dollar invested in prison education programs, there is a reduction of four to five dollars in incarceration costs during the first three years after a prisoner’s release.

However, in March 2024, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced that between $805 and $935 million will be invested in rebuilding the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln and the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill to address critical infrastructure needs in both facilities.

“Building more prisons is not the solution because we will continue to spend our tax funds, and community crime will continue, and the school-to-prison pipeline will be reinforced,” exclaimed Esquivel.

It is important to educate the public about the impact that can be had by giving an incarcerated person the opportunity to access higher education.

“It is better to have a neighbor who was released, is educated, and contributes to society,” Esquivel highlighted.

The RAND report revealed that the chances of obtaining employment after release among inmates who participated in correctional education were 13% higher than for those who did not.

Students who receive access to education programs also develop a sense of leadership or learn skills in crafts and trades that, upon leaving prison, give them access to jobs and financial resources. Having a job gives purpose to the individual and reduces the possibility of returning to old negative habits.

In addition to impacting the individual, education programs have a positive effect on reducing community violence and on family members who have suffered from losing financial and emotional support by having a family member in the penal system.

Tools to find peace

Among ideas on how to prevent crime in Chicago and analyzing some of the remedies proposed to achieve peace, the concept of restorative justice is gaining momentum.

This concept focuses on repairing harm through dialogue between the victim and their aggressor. The victim will decide how the aggressor can redeem and regain the group’s trust. These mediations typically occur in ‘peace circles.’

Economist Fatemeh Momeni was part of the team at the University of Chicago Education Lab, which conducted research on the impact of implementing restorative practices in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

In an interview with La Raza, Momeni said that for a student, being exposed to punitive and disciplinary practices in school, such as suspension and expulsion, can have long-term negative consequences. Lower chances of graduating from high school or attending college are some of the aftermaths of those school policies.

The impact continues when young people enter society as adults and are more likely to have lower incomes and also more likely to be arrested and go to jail.

In the 2018-2019 school year, a collaboration started between the University of Chicago and CPS’s office of social and emotional learning, which wanted to understand the impact of many of their practices, including restorative practices.

The main questions addressed in the research were about how restorative practices implemented in Chicago public schools affect students’ behavior and daily experience in schools and who benefits the most from these practices.

The research covered 10 years of data, from the 2008-2009 to 2018-2019 school years. The research team received data from 239 high schools and 50 elementary schools. The implementation of restorative practices began in CPS in the 2013-2014 school year.

In the 1980s and 1990s, CPS, like many other urban school districts in the United States, implemented ‘zero tolerance’ policies that demand the use of suspension and expulsion as disciplinary responses to a student’s misconduct.

According to Momeni, these policies resulted in high rates of suspension, especially among African American and Latino students. In response, in 2014 CPS announced an amendment to the Student Code of Conduct to reduce suspensions and expulsions and began implementing restorative practices in public schools. Currently, 634 schools are part of CPS.

The Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) organization played a significant role in the fight for the implementation of the restorative justice philosophy in CPS and turned low-income Latino and African American parents into civic leaders to advocate before the state and local government and legislature for the reduction of suspensions.

Any student who attended these schools during that time was part of the study because students could have been directly impacted by the school culture change as a result of the effects of these practices and the change in relationships between students and teachers in the school.

Padres de familia que forman parte de COFI, organización comunitaria que aboga por los derechos de familias de bajos recursos, luchan contra la política de “tolerancia cero” en las escuelas. (Cortesía COFI)
Crédito: Cortesía

Implementation of new practices

Coaches and experts in restorative practices were assigned to schools to train teachers and administrative employees and teach them how to apply these practices in response to misconduct. The program is a kind of professional development. The coach offers an inventory of tools and practices that are developed together with the school according to its needs.

The research highlighted that suspensions for off-campus incidents decreased without an increase in in-school suspensions; arrests also decreased, not only within the school but also incidents of arrests occurring outside of schools.

“We found a significant reduction in arrests for violent and non-violent offenses of approximately 20%,” Momeni emphasized.

This was the most interesting finding for Momeni because it suggests that restorative justice generates real changes in students’ behavior. “We didn’t expect arrests that take place outside of school to be affected by the behavior or decisions of school staff,” she noted.

In other words, these results point to real changes in students’ behavior. Additionally, students responded to surveys indicating they felt safer in classrooms after the integration of restorative practices.

These are encouraging and positive results. In terms of who benefits the most, the research found that students of color might benefit more from the reduction in off-campus suspensions.

The students who participated had fewer off-campus arrests, which could contribute to reducing the level of violence and crime in the community.

The study presents an alternative to what is traditionally used in the educational environment in response to students’ misconduct.

Restorative practices provide a technique to respond to harmful school incidents that avoids asking teachers not to suspend without telling them what the options are. Instead, they can achieve the same goals without using punitive practices.

Contact Information for the Organizations

Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison – IL-CHEP

Address: 1 North Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60602



Facebook Page:

University of Chicago Education Lab

Address: 33 N LaSalle St. Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60602

Phone: 773-834-4292


Community Organizing and Family Issues – COFI

Address: 2245 S Michigan Ave, Suite 200 Chicago, IL 60616

Phone: 312-226-5141



The production and publication of this story by La Raza have been made possible in part thanks to a grant from the Chicago Community Trust through its Cross Community Impact grant program.

En esta nota

Barrio y paz English Features Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison Reportajes Chicago Seguridad comunitaria
Contenido Patrocinado
Enlaces patrocinados por Outbrain