Jason Marks, 48, said he remembers sitting in a prison cell and thinking to himself: “Is this it? Am I going to die in prison?”
He wanted the answer to be no. But Marks had been in and out of the criminal justice system since his youth — and he didn’t know how to break that cycle.
“I was running in a hamster wheel, watching everybody in the world,” he said about a week after his release from prison. “I wake up one day, I look in the mirror, I got gray in my goatee. So I’m like: What am I going to do?”
About half a year after he asked himself that question, Marks hit a turning point. He was transferred to a different prison — East Moline Correctional Center — and there, he heard about a program that could grant him a bachelor’s degree, run through Augustana College in Rock Island.
Marks applied and got in — and could finally envision a way off the hamster wheel.
“I actually felt like a human being when I was in class,” he said. “I don’t want this to sound cliche or take this lightly; it’s changed my life.”
Access to higher education is limited in prison. In 1994, a sweeping federal crime bill cut incarcerated people off from Pell Grants, a form of federal need-based financial aid. In the years after the legislation went into effect, the number of higher education programs in prison fell sharply across the nation, from estimates of more than 700 in the early 1990s to eight in 1997, according to a historical review by the American Enterprise Institute.
This month, for the first time in nearly three decades, the federal government restored Pell Grants to incarcerated people. More than 760,000 incarcerated people across the nation could benefit, the U.S. Department of Education estimates.
A handful of Illinois prisons currently offer non-vocational higher education, according to a 2022 report by the Illinois Higher Education in Prison (HEP) Task Force. That may change under the new policy — but availability of program spots and systemic educational issues could keep many people in prison from actually enrolling this fall.
Eligibility depends on correctional facility, educational level
Pell Grant eligibility will depend on whether an incarcerated person lives in a prison with a federally-approved program. The U.S. Department of Education opened up applications early this month and will approve higher education institutions on a rolling basis.
So it’s hard to pin down the number of incarcerated students in Illinois who will receive Pell Grants this school year. But a previous initiative offers clues into how funding will work.
Before this month’s change, nearly 200 colleges across the country participated in the “Second Chance Pell Experiment,” giving them permission to disburse Pell Grant funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Two existing college programs in Illinois drew upon this funding, and both will continue to provide services, said Naomi Puzzello, a spokesperson from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Augustana Prison Education Program, which Marks attended, is one of those sites.
Sharon Varallo, the executive director of Augustana’s program, said the Pell Grant money makes a dent in the cost of running the program. But she said grants and private donors heavily contribute so incarcerated students can attend for free. Augustana enrolled 10 students the first year, then an additional 24 the next year, she said.
“It’s going to take more than just Pell (Grants) to fix this system,” she said. “It will be a game changer, but it’s not going to be a tsunami of new programs opening, I guarantee you that. It is very hard to get going.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections contracts some colleges to provide courses, mostly vocational, and Puzzello said these particular programs won’t be impacted by Pell restoration as of now. But the majority of higher education programs in Illinois prisons are not state-funded, and could apply to use Pell as another funding stream, as the case with Augustana.
A wide expansion of programs may require more incentive – or more money – than Pell, Varallo said. The Illinois Department of Corrections had not received interest for new programs as of late July, said Puzzello, the spokesperson for the agency.
For now, ending up in a prison with a program is a matter of chance – and there are only so many spots.
A little over 400 people in state-run prisons enrolled in non-contractual programs during the 2021 school year, according to the most recent public data. That’s less than 2% of the total prison population at the time, based on the Illinois Department of Corrections’ quarterly reports.
Along with having physical access to a program, eligibility depends on sentence length and education level. The Illinois Department of Corrections’ policy requires prospective students to have enough time on their sentence to benefit from a program, though it does not outline exact lengths.
Per policy, participants must also have a high school diploma or an equivalent, and they must score an 8 or higher on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), a nationwide assessment of math, reading, and language skills. Over 60% of test-takers in the state correctional system scored below a 6 on the TABE in 2020, according to the Illinois HEP Task Force report.
Often, incarcerated people face disparities in their education before prison, said Xavier Perez, a criminology professor at DePaul University.
So Pell Grants can help with funding, but they won’t erase every barrier to college access, said Perez. Rather, he said broader, structural change will be necessary, and not only around the prison system. He points to underfunded schools — along with poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, and structural racism — as some of the root issues interlocking with incarceration.
For Perez, education was his own escape. He said he went to a juvenile facility as a teenager, but found a refuge through reading and writing. Perez has since earned his Ph.D, and now, he teaches classes at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison south west of Chicago.
When he walks into class, he sees himself in a lot of his students.
“It might just be a chance of luck, that I’m not in there with them,” he said. “Many of them come from my neighborhood. We grew up in the same context, I just was fortunate enough to have programs around me that took my life in another way.”
Some research shows that incarcerated people who participate in higher education programs while serving time are less likely to go back to prison.
But Perez said these programs go deeper than those numbers. Where they really shine, he said, is the way they “get people rethinking about their environment and their worldview.”
Jason Marks — the student at Augustana’s program – knows that transformation well. He’s been in and out of adult prisons nearly 10 times, mainly for theft and some battery charges.
So when he took classes in prison, he had a question for his professors: What do I do after release?
“I thrive in prison; I’m good at that, I’ve done it enough times. Where I need help is here and now, upon getting out. I said: ‘Is there a path forward?’” Marks said. “It was breaking my mind – so many times back and forth inside of that hell.”
Thanks to Augustana’s program, Marks said he finally felt supported when he got released in June. This time, as he walked outside the prison gates, he saw his professors there to celebrate. No one had cared to wait for him like that before, he said.
“I finally feel like I found some inner peace,” he said. “Since I’ve been out, I keep getting these waves of anxiety coming on — like I have this fear that something’s wrong, but nothing’s wrong. Because I’m just so used to something always being wrong.”
Marks grew up surrounded by abuse and addiction, he said, with family members getting him drunk at 10 years old and high on cocaine by 15. And, in the past, he said he tended to end up on his family’s couch, or right back to doing what landed him in the system.
But now, the Augustana program is giving him a chance at a different path.
Marks has heard the criticism that people in prison don’t deserve to go to college, especially not for free. But he said everyone deserves an education and wishes the Pell Grant restoration could have happened long ago.
Breaking the cycle requires changing structures, hope
Student Tyrone Stone — who also participated in Augustana’s program – said people need more than education to break the cycle. They need hope and support.
Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Stone said he excelled in high school. After graduating, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois to enroll in college.
“In my family and my friends’ eyes, I’m this guy that’s doing really great — you know, ‘He’s the one that’s going to help, he’s the one that’s going to change things,’” Stone said.
But his life took a turn. His father died in prison. Stone couldn’t afford to stay at his college. He moved back to the Chicago area and took classes at a few other colleges, but he struggled.
Then he said he got caught up in the streets. In 2015, Stone went to prison for armed robbery. He got to go home earlier this year. He’s now 35.
“Your thinking process has to change. Things you want to keep up with, you gotta let go. You can’t be the same person,” he said. “So I had to grow up really, really fast.”
While in prison, Stone said he did what he could — he raised his kids over the phone, calling them and listening to their remote lessons when COVID-19 forced virtual learning. He taught some of his peers reading skills and said he participated in any program he could.
Stone got released early for good behavior. But even so, his life was on pause for about seven years. Time went by, chipping away his confidence and motivation.
That changed with his college program, he said. In his first class, he doubted that he could form genuine connections — but by the end, he said his classmates came rushing to hug him. They could tell when he was hurting or sad, he said, and they’d support him when he needed it.
“The camaraderie is a real thing, the learning is a real thing,” he said. “It’s a competitiveness like no other. A lot of people might think, you guys are just inmates. But there are some brilliant people behind bars.”
During one class, he said they close-read the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday, a song protesting the lynching of Black Americans. The previous day, he said he had watched the trial for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who ultimately was convicted in 2021 for murdering George Floyd.
“It was not a coincidence to me. It was like, ‘I have to wake up,’” he said. “I don’t want to be a victim. I know George Floyd or any of these other victims didn’t go outside and want to become a victim. I don’t want to be a martyr in that way.”
That’s why he’s motivated to change the systemic issues in the incarceration system, he said – including the way that people of color are disproportionately locked up. Two-thirds of people incarcerated in state-run prisons are people of color, based on the most recent public prison population data, while 76% of people in Illinois are white, according to the U.S. Census.
Stone said he’s also concerned about young people who are incarcerated. When he got sent to Cook County Jail — a Chicagoland facility where thousands of people wait for their trials — Stone said he saw many teenagers there with him. He remembers hearing some say they didn’t expect to live past 21, so why read a book?
“They looked like babies,” he said. “They look like my babies — these are the same babies that I saw inside these cages.”
So Stone now dreams of creating a program to support youth, and using the space of his old elementary school — Paderewski — to do it. Paderewski closed in 2013 when then-mayor Rahm Emanuel recommended shutting down 50 public schools, the majority serving primarily Black students.
Without his higher education program in prison, Stone said, he wouldn’t have the belief in himself to come up with that idea.
“Once we have that beacon, that light, that hope, then we start to rebuild our personalities,” Stone said. “We start to rebuild our purpose and create a complete self, someone that we can present to the world and say, ‘I messed up, but look at what I’m doing now.’”
Prison education programs can help change perspectives
The programs can provide more than a boost to the spirit. In Marks’ case, it helped him find his bearings after his release from East Moline Correctional Center late last month.
When he got out, Marks said he had about $30 to his name. Members of the Augustana program helped coordinate his housing and basic necessities. And they formed a support network around him.
That first day of release, Marks got a blanket, handmade for him. It was donated by a local church that the director of his program attends.
In a corner panel reads a message: “Welcome Home.” He still keeps it on his bed.
“I’m surrounded by positive, smart, successful people, and I’m like — how is this happening?” Marks said. “It’s sad that people are getting out that won’t have this, and I didn’t have this any other time.”
Marks’ professors call him up to get lunch. His previous roommate taught him how to use a computer, so Marks could type up his cover letter. And in the month since his release, Marks has landed a job.
These days, Marks said life looks different — he’s no longer running frantically on a hamster wheel, looking at the world passing him by.
“I walk outside and everything’s slowed down a little bit,” he said. “I enjoy the fresh air and the trees look greener; I start laughing sometimes, like man, this is crazy.”
It’s surreal at times, Marks said, but it’s an outlook he wants to keep. While at his transitional housing, Marks saw a neighbor across the street moving in. He decided to offer his assistance.
He helped get her stuff moved out of a storage unit and into her house. And one day, after he saw her son riding around in a scooter, Marks gave the boy a bike that had been donated to him.
“I felt like, ‘I gotta do something for somebody, because everybody’s doing things for me,’” he said.
He’s also determined to do something for himself: Break the cycle and keep moving forward, off that hamster wheel.