DANVILLE, Ill. (WCIA)– Two institutions put their heads together and came up with a way to bring higher education to some of the most marginalized in central Illinois: incarcerated people.

It’s called the Education Justice Project, a college in prison program run by the University of Illinois.

EJP made this commitment to higher education back in 2008, but classrooms re-opened this semester after a pandemic hiatus.

WCIA 3 attended one of the classes at the Danville Correctional Center during our first visit allowed at state prison since the pandemic began. We sat down with people who have violent criminal histories and decades-long sentences. They said it’s in prison they learned that doesn’t have to define them forever.

“When they brought me into jail, I was 17 years old so I was still a teenager,” shared Victor Ramos, who’s incarcerated at the state prison. “I wasn’t thinking about education, I wasn’t thinking about nothing, I was thinking I got 28 years I have to do.”

That was 22 years ago. Ramos says it was in prison that he made the choice to change his course.

“I got my GED in here, I got my associates [degree] in here, I got a certificate for construction,” he listed.

Now Ramos is working on a computer science degree through the Education Justice Project. This course and several others take place inside the prison.

Chaka Richblood was also incarcerated as a teenager.

“When I was younger, sadly, I admired all the wrong things,” he began.

Education is a way forward, according to Richblood, one that didn’t feel like an option before he was convicted.

“Prior to my incarceration, I can’t remember none of my peers that, like, we actually encouraged each other to like, to do better in school, to learn new things,” he shared.

“…My first friend I met, that was positive, was in a juvenile facility, and we started memorizing words out the dictionary, we learn Swahili and reading Afro-centric books.”

In a world where knowledge is power, EJP Director Rebecca Ginsburg said they’re trying to close the gap.

“Many people have heard of the school to prison pipeline, and that refers to policies enacted in the K-12 system that make it harder for students, once they have any disciplinary challenges or problems, to continue their education,” Ginsburg explained.

“I was a kid back then, a teenager, still like trying to look for my identity and then they put you in prison; It’s just like, these combinations are like a bad combination,” Ramos added. “But somehow I managed to pass through all of that.”

About 275 people have gone through the program here since 2008, according to Ginsburg, earning credit at U of I from prison. She said interest is high but they haven’t turned anyone away.

“It is huge,” Ginsburg shared. “…Especially when you consider that most people who are incarcerated, at the time of incarceration in Illinois, enter the system without a GED or high school diploma, and that’s true of our students too.”

Ramos and Richblood said they want to use their education to make a difference on the other side.

“Help the community and stop them, or at least prevent one kid from following the same footsteps I did,” Ramos added. “Because it’s sad, seeing them in the news every day, someone is getting killed or someone is being arrested.”

“Some time ago, I read a study that correlated the reduction in recidivism rates with the level of your education when you come to jail,” Richblood explained. “So if we really, sincerely want people to change and there’s math showing that this is going to encourage that factor, why not invest in that?”

“My goal for them isn’t that they don’t commit another crime when they get released,” Ginsburg added. “It’s that they are able to fulfill the lives and the dreams and ambitions they have for themselves, whether that means becoming a professor, or business owner or running for state office.”

Another key piece of EJP is making sure those who are about to re-enter society after years are equipped to do so. The program is only at the Danville Correctional Center currently, but Ginsburg says there are programs run by other universities across Illinois and about 300 programs like it across the country.