Illinois parolees: Often undereducated, unemployed — and soon back behind bars

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Justin McDowell was 17 when he and a confederate shotgunned their way into a downstate Allendale, Ill., home, held a couple and their infant daughter at gunpoint and stole $300 and the keys to the family’s black Chevy Impala. Like so many youth felonies, it was a stupid, tragic act. When McDowell was arrested a year later in 2002, he was working episodically for little money, laying foundations beneath double-wide trailer homes. He had no plans to return to school. The judge gave him 36 years.

By the time McDowell is eligible for parole in 2020, having served half his sentence, he will have cost Illinois taxpayers more than $396,000 — the cumulative price of his incarceration. Will it prove an efficient investment for a state experiencing a severe budget crisis? It ought to, given McDowell’s evolving eagerness over the past seven years to pursue an education and turn his life around. But for the Centralia Correctional Center inmate, now 33, the question remains open — as it does for most of the more than 40,000 men and women currently incarcerated in Illinois prisons.

Last March, McDowell lost an important building block toward reconfiguring his life when Kaskaskia College summarily, indefinitely and reluctantly suspended the in-prison degree program it had administered at Centralia since 1983, and in which McDowell was enrolled. At the time, McDowell was more than halfway toward earning an associate’s degree in general education. He previously had completed a six-month vocational tech program in construction management, earning straight A’s. “He’d been on a waiting list for almost two years, trying to get into that course,” Steve Mandrell, his Kaskaskia professor, recalled. Mandrell found him so impressive, he later hired him as a teacher’s aide.

Kaskaskia ended its program because the Illinois Department of Corrections, as a result of the state’s ongoing budget crisis, had stopped payment on its three-year, roughly $1.2 million contract with the school. According to George Evans, Kaskaskia’s dean of career and technical education, McDowell was one of approximately 1,400 prisoners the school has educated over the years.

The rehabilitative cost of ending post-secondary education opportunities for prisoners such as McDowell is substantial. “I went and talked to him the day before I left (my teaching position at Centralia),” Mandrell recalled. “He was telling me how wrong it was to not be able to complete his degree. He said, ‘There may be something I can do as far as a job, and this is going to hinder that.'”

But there is an accompanying, steep price the rest of us pay.

As of July 2015, McDowell was one of about 41,000 men and women interred in Illinois correctional centers, at a combined, annual taxpayer cost of close to $1 billion.

According to a 2015 Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council study, about 97 percent ultimately will be released, through parole or completion of sentence — including those convicted of violent crimes. It is not unusual for a murderer to get 40 years and win parole after serving 20.

The same study found that 19 percent of those released recidivate within a year, 48 percent in three years. IDOC paroled about 30,000 prisoners in 2013, according to an NBC report. That means roughly 14,400 could possibly return to prison. The cost of housing, feeding and caring for a single prisoner varies among the state’s 25 correctional centers, but averaged around $23,000 a year in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Based on all those figures, the taxpayer cost of housing people who recidivate, alone, is more than $331 million annually.

Factor in court costs, law enforcement costs and the social and economic losses suffered by new victims of parolees’ crimes, and the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council study estimated in 2015 that the total cost of recidivism in Illinois over the next five years would be $16.7 billion.

The best chance to break the recidivism cycle, a 2013 Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Justice Department found, is by offering prisoners access to a college-level education. According to the study, those who took classes while incarcerated were 43 percent less likely to recidivate.

Yet Illinois’ in-prison college programs are disappearing at an alarming rate. Around the time Kaskaskia ended its program, and for the identical reason, Richland Community College did the same. Danville Area Community College eliminated its vocational offerings.

Evans, the Kaskaskia dean, can’t find the logic in it. “Over a three-year study, the highest recidivism rate we had was 10 percent in our culinary program,” he said. “The lowest was 6 percent in the electronics program. Compare that to the 51.2 percent of those receiving no training whatsoever. Look at the (potential) savings. That has been presented numerous times to the DOC. It has fallen on deaf ears.”

As the community college programs neared their end, the students — prisoners — began a letter-writing campaign, to the IDOC, to their state legislators, to the governor. “The governor’s office was flooded with letters from inmates,” Evans said. “The inmates filed grievances. We had gang members who came in and said, ‘I got kids. I was a punk (when I was arrested), and my goal here is to make sure I never come back here.’ It did no good. They (state and prison officials) just do not take education seriously. They may say that they do, but don’t when it comes down to it.”

A year has passed since Mandrell last taught at Centralia. He still worries about the effect the program’s dissolution has had on McDowell. “My class was the first college course he took,” Mandrell said. “About halfway through, it’s like he softened up. Before, he was very negative — you know, ‘I’m never going to be able to get a very good job, because I’ve got this on my rap sheet.’ Then he started talking positive. ‘You know, if I can do this, then I know I can make a living. I know I can go back into society and be productive.'”

Ron Berler is the author of “Raising the Curve: Teachers, Students – A True Portrayal of Classroom Life.”

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Illinois parolees: Often undereducated, unemployed — and soon back behind bars