During a time when the coronavirus is having devastating effects on prisons and jails in Illinois and nationwide, the Undergraduate Prison Education Program has taken a new focus. Originally founded in January 2019, UPEP is the undergraduate branch of the Northwestern Prison Education Program, a Northwestern University initiative that provides a holistic liberal arts education to incarcerated individuals in Illinois. Due to the global pandemic, in-person classes and programming are no longer able to take place, but the efforts of the initiative have continued. School of Education and Social Policy sophomore Olivia Putnam and Weinberg sophomore Caleb Young are the presidents of UPEP, and they’re working to mitigate some of the impacts of COVID-19 on incarcerated populations throughout the state of Illinois.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Jacquelyne Germain: What is UPEP?
Olivia Putnam: There’s something called the Northwestern Prison Education Program, and this is the actual academic program that brings classes to Stateville Correctional Center and Cook County Jail. Faculty members at Northwestern and graduate students teach our Northwestern classes to two cohorts of about 40 incarcerated people at Stateville where they can take normal Northwestern classes and then they’re working towards an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s degree.
UPEP is the undergraduate arm of that organization and we support them by bringing undergraduate tutors into Statesville. During normal times we help them with their classes, we fundraise for their academic supplies and we do awareness events on campus about prison education and mass incarceration.
JG: What is the current focus of UPEP?
Caleb Young: Right now, we can’t lead any kind of educational programming at either Stateville or Cook County Jail due to the coronavirus. They aren’t allowed any kind of Internet access or access to technology, so there’s no way of doing Zoom. Just recently because of the pandemic, Stateville shut down bringing any academic supplies at both sites because they have become major outbreaks for the coronavirus. Cook County Jail, as of a few weeks ago, was the biggest coronavirus center in the United States in terms of a single cluster and Stateville has quite a big cluster as well.
We’re trying to use the resources and connections that our program has to those two places to provide cleaning supplies that are underfunded in those two correctional institutions and throughout the state. Our current initiative to get supplies does not just extend to Stateville and Cook County Jail. We’re providing a number of hygienic supplies to a number of different prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers throughout Illinois. So, right now our focus is mostly fundraising.
JG: How has coronavirus impacted UPEP’s operation?
OP: I think it’s really reframed our goals. Beforehand, it was an educational program and we were just trying to support that, and now we’re trying to get these urgently needed supplies into the prison to protect people’s lives and their health.
Due to the Northwestern Prison Education Program’s preexisting relationship with the Illinois Department of Corrections, they’re one of the only organizations in the state who can provide these donations. So, it does feel like there’s an extra onus on us to make sure we’re getting these very much needed supplies into these prisons.
JG: How is UPEP working to alleviate the impacts of coronavirus on Illinois jails and prisons?
OP: Beyond fundraising, one other thing we’ve been trying to do to mitigate that sort of loss of community that they’re experiencing is we started a letter writing campaign. We paired each of the students at the correctional facilities up with an undergrad to write some letters. The campaign has been temporarily put on hold because Stateville decided they didn’t want to accept any more educational materials because of concerns of contamination. I actually got an email a few days ago, and I think that’s going to be lifted in the next couple weeks. So, we’re gonna try to restart that program.
Obviously, a letter from someone you don’t really know is not the same as convening with your community several times a week, but we hope that it will provide them with some sense of connection and support during a really scary time. Incarcerated people are both detached from their community and isolated from the people that care about them, but they also don’t have the privilege that we do of actually isolating themselves and social distancing to protect themselves.
What have you guys learned during your time working with the program?
OP: I think it’s reaffirmed for me what a valuable thing and what a privilege education is. Sometimes, as Northwestern students, it’s something that we take for granted, but education is not something provided to everyone and it’s not something that’s equitable. It’s something that can be deeply transformative for someone’s life, both for opportunities that they then have and also on a personal level. I think it’s important to remember that and it’s encouraged me to not take it for granted as much.
JG: How can undergraduate students at Northwestern get involved with the program?
OP: You can email us at [email protected] We can add you to the listserv, you can follow us on Instagram @nu_upep. Then crossing our fingers, if we’re back in the fall, join us for a meeting.
If you’re looking to tutor, it’s open to all majors and that does require that you have a day free of classes or no classes until around 3:30 p.m. If that’s something you want to do, I would arrange your schedule like so and then at the beginning of fall quarter you do a training and you have to submit some information to get cleared by the Illinois Department of Corrections. If you don’t want to tutor or can’t make time, then absolutely just come to one of our meetings and the level to which you’re involved is totally up to you. If you just want to swing by meetings, it’s fine and if you want to get more involved with programming or fundraising, we would absolutely love that.
JG: How can the Northwestern community help with UPEP’s efforts during this time?
OP: Donate if you can and if you can’t donate, email friends and family who you think can. We have an Instagram story that people can share. Just any way that you can help fundraise helps us purchase supplies and if you’re in the Evanston area, you can drop off physical supplies.
CY: I would add just sharing the stories about what’s going on. I think prison conditions get under-covered by the media and I don’t think there’s a huge emphasis on how the coronavirus is affecting incarcerated populations even though they’re probably among the most susceptible populations anywhere. There are some good articles out there that you can find and share with other people. Reading these articles really made a difference for me to see what the scope of the problem was beyond just the people who I know are living in these institutions.