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“Mission: To serve justice in Illinois and increase public safety by promoting positive change in offender behavior, operating successful reentry programs, and reducing victimization.” 

These are the first words I read upon my arrival at Stateville Northern Receiving Center. They are the words proudly displayed on the bottom of every Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) letterhead — the statement in which IDOC as an apparatus of the criminal justice system was to structure its institution.

Mission. Failed.

I can think of many examples that render this statement a fallacy, each equally as important as the next, but it’s the “successful reentry programs” that are most hypocritical; in most facilities, they are virtually non-existent.

Research has proven that there is a direct correlation between recidivism and how it relates to the educational opportunities provided during one’s incarceration. Statistics show that the chances of re-offending drastically decrease with each subsequent academic achievement. 

This symbiotic relationship is so pronounced that I can’t help but ask myself why IDOC has yet to prioritize the importance of educating its inmate population? If this is an institution put in place to truly promote rehabilitation, as the Illinois State Constitution and IDOC’s own mission statement claims, then why isn’t there more emphasis on providing its inmate population with the life skills and education necessary to prosper upon release?

As it stands today there are few educational or vocational opportunities that exist behind this wall, and the few that IDOC does offer are incompetent. Some facilities are better suited than others, but all fall short due to overpopulation. Of course an extremely motivated inmate in pursuit of an education could put forth a transfer request seeking to be placed in a facility that offers more opportunity, but then he must wait as IDOC processes the request, which will likely get denied. 

How could it be that receiving an education is so callously left up to chance? Many inmates grow stagnant as they sit on a waiting list for years, only to be called up once their sentence nears completion. Some do their entire sentence without participating in any program. For context, I have been incarcerated for 3.5 years and have yet to participate in anything meaningful.

I understand that IDOC has a budget to adhere to, and they cannot possibly afford to fund substantive programs, and keep all 30,000 of us incarcerated. The general consensus is that we cannot exhaust any more taxpayer dollars in our prison system. And since we have yet to change the court of public opinion, we must work towards finding alternative solutions as to how we can go about funding the programs that have proven to be absolutely imperative when it comes to reducing recidivism. 

It’s evident that something isn’t working, and so a couple months ago I had an idea that would be a pragmatic solution and a substantial step forward in transforming IDOC into an institution that truly promotes rehabilitation.

The proposition is simple: we abolish the Securus phone system and replace it with one that is owned and operated by IDOC. Securus is the phone system that IDOC utilizes in every facility in the state. It’s a private-sector corporation that for years has exploited and profited off IDOC’s entire inmate population. its stockholders gaining extraordinary wealth by capitalizing on our intrinsic desire to call home and speak to loved ones — many of whom have minimal means to keep funding these calls.  

Phone charges can go as high as $14 for a 15-minute call, according to some reports. Call me radical, but I believe no private sector or for-profit entity should be allowed to operate behind these walls. Capitalism has no place in our penal system, and the prison phone industry is worth a staggering $1.2 billion. 

If IDOC were to manage its own phone system, it could then funnel all profits straight back into the prisons it serves and allocate this money specifically to fund the educational and vocational programs that are so desperately needed. In essence, inmates would be paying for their own education. 

IDOC could transition into a self-sustaining institution that truly promotes rehabilitation, without exhausting any more tax dollars. Recidivism rates would plummet as young men and women reentered society with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in life — all the while creating thousands of new jobs for educators the IDOC would employ.

 The truth is that our prison system is severely broken, and reforming it should be a priority on the mind of every legislator in the state. If those in power do not capitalize on this historic moment in time, the pendulum will once again swing beyond our grasp and stall the winds of change once more. We cannot afford to hold out in hopes of incremental reform. As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “gradualism is little more than escapism and do-nothingism, which ends up in stand-stillism.” 

 There is too much at stake for those whose very success remains contingent upon the initiatives of our elected officials. The men and women behind these walls aren’t much different from those who exist beyond it. We are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Most of us found our way here due to lack of opportunity, and all we want — all we’ve ever wanted — was a fair chance.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Rogelio Richart is a writer incarcerated in Illinois.