A State Will Require Civics Education in Prisons

Education programs in prisons are spread throughout the country, but Illinois will be the first to require civics classes.

Education programs in prisons are spread throughout the country, but Illinois will be the first to require civics classes. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The goal of the new Illinois law is to reduce recidivism, help former prisoners reintegrate into their communities, and boost voter turnout.

Every year, 30,000 people leave Illinois prisons and reenter society. Many of them hold the false belief that their time in prison prohibits them from voting for the rest of their life, as it does in several other states, including three of Illinois’ five neighbors. But while Illinois restores voting rights to people immediately upon their release from prison (even if they are still serving parole or probation), many former prisoners don’t know that, or if they do, they don’t know how to register to vote.

A new law, set to take effect at the start of 2020, seeks to change that by making people in prison more aware not only of their voting rights, but also of how government works more generally. The Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act makes Illinois the first state to require prisons to offer civics education classes that will be taught by incarcerated peer educators who have been trained by nonpartisan civics organizations. 

Prisons around the country, from Florida to Texas, have implemented similar classes, but until now, no state has mandated they be held at all state institutions for both adult inmates and young people 17 years of age or older in juvenile detention.

Ami Gandhi, the director of voting rights and civic empowerment at the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, an organization that worked to draft the civics bill, said that the idea for the class came from incarcerated and returning community members. “While Illinois is branded as a state that offers automatic restoration of voting rights, that doesn’t mean registration is automatic,” she explained. “The bureaucratic process of registering to vote has been a barrier for many community members with past criminal records because they didn’t know the process they had to go through to exercise their right to vote.”

The legislation will require Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice facilities to offer civics education classes as a mandatory part of the standard release process, meaning everyone who has just a year left before release from prison has to attend the course.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat, said that he was interested in pushing the legislation forward after sitting in on a similar class in Statesville Prison run by an organization called Chicago Votes. “I gained a very progressive view of what safety and justice really look like,” he said. “Folks stuck behind bars should know what their rights are as soon as they’re out, and they should know about the systems that impact their lives as they approach freedom.”

The course will consist of three 90-minute sessions, and will cover the voting process, government, and current affairs. Subjects that peer educators may cover include how elections work, how the federal government interacts with city and state governments, how to register to vote, and how bills become laws. 

People in the last 12 months of their sentence already are required to attend similar workshops that teach them how to find housing and get healthcare, and Peters said that voting should be considered just as important. “Historically, prisons have been some of the most political places in America,” he said. “This will help them flex those same political muscles to affect electoral change once they get to the outside.”

Peters also said that having the classes be taught by incarcerated peer educators is a key component of the legislation, because it will empower them to learn about civics and share it with others. Those peer educators will be trained by organizations like Chicago Votes, which is experienced working with incarcerated people. 

The organization not only teaches classes in prisons, but earlier this year also brought polling booths into the Cook County Jail in Chicago so that people in pretrial detention could cast their votes. Roughly 600 people marked ballots that day— a moment that inspired a second piece of legislation that Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzer signed into law on the same day as the civics education bill. That legislation requires Cook County to establish a polling place at the jail for each election, and requires that jails in smaller counties make absentee voting more accessible. 

“It’s a new day in Illinois—one where we not only recognize the sanctity of the vote but commit to doing everything we can to invite everyone who is eligible to fully participate,” Pritzker said in a statement. “In Illinois, we understand that every vote matters and every vote counts.”

Earlier this year, Pritzker also signed an executive order creating the Justice, Equity, and Opportunity Initiative, in which he highlighted that, in Illinois, “45% of people released from prison recidivate, a clear indication that the Illinois prison system must do more to successfully rehabilitate people and prepare them to return to their communities after release.”

Organizers of the civics education bill relied on research that has shown that education programs in prison have a positive effect on the ability of people to adapt to normal life after leaving prison. Those who participate in correctional education programs have been shown to have a 43% lower chance of recidivating than those that do not.

Peters thinks that part of the success of educational programs is because society treats those with criminal records as felons, first and foremost. “I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s humans in prison,” he said. 

But Peters also hopes that other state governments will take notice and consider similar measures. “We’re doing right now in Illinois what other states didn’t even think was possible,” he said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Citizens & Town Officials Form Consensus to Update 20-Year Strategic Priorities for Lake Lure, NC
Lake Lure, NC, USA
Asheville Parks & Rec Strategic Plan Boosts Staff Participation & Deepens Community Relationships
Asheville, NC, USA
Budgeting for Climate: The City of Pittsburgh Repurposes Resources for a Sustainable Future
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

NEXT STORY: Sending Unsolicited Sexual Photos is Now Illegal in This State

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.