WBEZ: A state senator provides a rare opportunity for incarcerated men to shape the policies that impact them

Dorado Muhammad Green Sen Ventura Dole Watkins

Community News
Charlotte West

Read Time 3 minutes
March 19, 2024

This story was originally co-published on March 13 by WBEZ and Open Campus.

When Rachel Ventura, D-Joliet, was running for the Illinois State Senate in 2022, she agreed to meet with a group of incarcerated men interested in public policy.

The men were ready for her. They wanted to know if this was more than a one-time, politically opportunistic visit. Would she ever come back? If she won, would she consider them her constituents?

And they had a proposal: Hire someone like us as an intern.

The following spring, Ventura became the first state senator in Illinois — and likely the country — to offer a legislative internship behind bars.

Stateville Correctional Center is in Ventura’s district, but Illinois law prevents the more than 3,000 men that reside there — as well as anyone who is serving time in prison — from voting. The internship offered a way for them to help shape the criminal justice policies that directly affect them.

“The incarcerated community is perhaps the largest group of people who are impacted by policy they have absolutely no say in,” said Raul Dorado, one of Ventura’s current interns.

A need for more experiential learning in prison

Prison educators do their best to offer incarcerated students the same academic experience as students on campus. But students in prison rarely have access to experiential learning like internships that are essential to a college education. And there is little opportunity for people to use their degrees inside.

A few places are starting to address this gap in programming. In Colorado and Maine, incarcerated graduates of master’s degree programs have been allowed to teach undergraduate classes and get paid outside wages. Incarcerated paralegals and law students in Minnesota have done externships with law firms. Several prison education programs, including in Illinois, hire former students to work as tutors or teaching assistants, sometimes as their official prison job assignment.

Ventura said one of her initial concerns with offering an internship at Stateville was that she didn’t want to exploit the participants’ labor. As a result, she worked with DePaul University so they could earn college credit for their work at no cost to them.

Eric Watkins, who was the first to propose the idea to Ventura, said while education inside has expanded somewhat in recent years, opportunities to use that education have not.

Most jobs in prison rely on physical labor, not on professional skills. Opportunities such as Ventura’s internship recognize inside graduates’ accomplishments: They are seen and valued as “able-minded people” who can contribute to society, not just “able-bodied men” who keep the prison running, said Watkins, who earned a master’s degree from North Park Theological Seminary.

Creating an internship behind bars

It’s been nearly a year since Ventura hired the first incarcerated intern, Lynn Green. At the time, Green was an undergraduate student at Northwestern University and serving a 50-year sentence. Green has since earned his bachelor’s. Much of Green’s internship was spent figuring out the logistics of running such a program behind bars. Ventura, for instance, learned that using paper clips could prevent documents from getting to the interns for weeks because of security concerns.

Unlike the interns on Ventura’s staff at her office in Joliet, Green didn’t have access to the internet, a workspace or even a computer. He was reliant on outside staff for research support and faced challenges with communication. At one point, he lost almost all his paperwork and research when he was reassigned to another housing unit.

Green’s work primarily focused on juvenile justice reform. Last year, Ventura filed a bill that would have shut down county juvenile detention facilities and transferred their authority to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The bill was an attempt to provide oversight to county detention centers, including one that was shut down by the courts at the end of 2023 for failure to meet state standards for care of youth in custody...