In an effort to reduce recidivism, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) introduced legislation last week that would increase "timely and comprehensive" access to GED education for Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) inmates.
"I think that the general public would be surprised to hear how little programming is available for the folks that are incarcerated in our facilities," Cassidy said at a news conference at the Howard Area Community Center in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood on the North Side.
Joined by formerly incarcerated men and activists from the ONE Northside Violence Prevention Coalition, Cassidy said the legislation aims to turn the IDOC "into something whose mission is dedicated to the act of making someone better."
The bill would expand inmates' eligibility requirements for the GED program to include those sentenced to a year or more, rather than two years, a statement from Cassidy's office said, adding that it will also "strengthen the requirements to ensure a timely and efficient process."
How the bill specifically addresses timeliness and program waitlists, however, "remains to be drafted," according to Cassidy's office. A copy of the legislation, which has not yet been assigned a bill number, is not yet available for review.
"When testing can take place months after coursework, processing takes months, and waitlists are enormous, it's hardly an educational opportunity," reads a statement from Cassidy's office.
Out of 48,921 inmates in June 2014, 19.7 percent were high school graduates and 19.2 percent had a GED, according to the IDOC's FY2014 Annual Report - the most recent data available. More than 44 percent of inmates had an eleventh grade education or lower at that time.
In the state's 2014 fiscal year, 5,618 inmates participated in the GED program, while 920 completed the process, according to IDOC.
Between July 2014 and March 2015, IDOC had 2,055 inmates participate in GED education courses, while 1,268 inmates were on a waitlist. Only 102 inmates were listed as having completed the GED program during that period.
"We need to think about what corrections means," Cassidy said at last week's press conference. "Correction is the act of making something better and, frankly, denying folks who are in our correctional facilities access to education, access to treatment, access to rehabilitation, is the opposite of that."
As it stands, offenders who enter IDOC with a two-year sentence or more are given the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) exam and must score a 9.0 or above for GED program entry. Inmates with a TABE score of 6.0 to 9.0 can enter the Pre-GED program and those who do not score above a 6.0 are mandated to Adult Basic Education (ABE). Potential students are then placed on a waitlist, which is prioritized by inmate release date.
In 2013, IDOC switched from paper and pencil exams to online testing, in accordance with new federal standards. That switch, which required the purchase and installation of computers and a secure network, resulted in an "extensive" delay in testing, IDOC spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said in a statement. Staffing and budget limitations have also contributed to the waitlists at some IDOC facilities.
Ralph Edwards, who earned his GED while he was incarcerated in 1999, said he was on a waitlist for five years during his eight-year sentence.
"I used to have to wait on guys to get in trouble or transfer, so it could open up a spot," Edwards said, adding that he was one of "hundreds of guys" on the waitlist at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg. Once he got in the class, Edwards said he studied for six or seven hours every day and ultimately passed the GED test with the highest score of his class.
"The only way to get a GED when I was in prison was to get on the waitlist, then just wait," he said.
When Edwards was released from prison in 2002, he later worked as a program manager for CeaseFire. He said he wants that opportunity for all incarcerated individuals.
"When inmates aren't rehabilitated with education like I was, there's a high chance of going back," Edwards said.
The average cost associated with one recidivism event in Illinois is $118,746, according to a 2015 study from the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, which also found that 48 percent of inmates released from prison every year return within three years of release and 19 percent will end up back in prison within one year.
"The GED in IDOC bill would give people with criminal records a fighting chance at being successful and feeling good about themselves ... When returning citizens get jobs, they pay income taxes, they buy stuff and all this money goes back into the economy, rather than costing the state and taxpayers for incarceration," Edwards said.
Here's for more from Edwards and Cassidy during last Friday's press conference:
An IDOC representative said the agency is working to reduce recidivism.
"While I cannot speak directly to Representative Cassidy's proposed legislation, I can tell you that the IDOC is working with Governor Rauner to drive down the recidivism rate," Wilson said in a statement. "The department is committed to providing educational and vocational opportunities that give offenders the tools they need to be successful when they return to the community."
Despite the fact that the state faces a $6 billion budget deficit and entered the 2016 fiscal year on July 1 without a spending plan, funding the increased access to GED classes in IDOC shouldn't be a problem, according to Cassidy.
"I fundamentally believe that within our department of corrections budget they can prioritize their spending in a way that makes this possible," she said.
State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston), who plans to be a co-signer on the legislation, said there is "broad support for this."
"I think everybody recognizes that it's important to provide services to save money on the preventative side and give people the lives that they deserve." Gabel said. "People want to be productive members of society and we have a responsibility to help people get there."