By Christopher A. Vaughn

I was kicked out of high school my sophomore year due to attendance issues. Shortly after that I was arrested for several crimes that resulted in a 34-year prison sentence in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Coming to jail at seventeen and facing the many serious offenses I was faced with led me to a new thought process. One in which I was searching for a positive end to the tragic situation I had gotten myself into. My only solution was to gain the best education available to me in order to prepare myself for my return home. Since the Macon County Jail only offered G.E.D. classes for inmates who weren’t facing class X felonies, I wasn’t able to participate. My quest for education was put on hold.  Image courtesy

After being sentenced, I was shipped out of the Macon County Jail and into the I.D.O.C. More specifically, Graham Correctional Center. I quickly signed up for G.E.D. classes and within two months I had successfully obtained my G.E.D.

In Illinois, first time offenders are placed on the top priority list when it comes to schooling, rather than ones who return to prison multiple times. Because I met the top priority qualifications, I was placed into a vocational course just weeks after receiving my G.E.D. My first choice was Small Business Management. After completing the 8-month course I enrolled in the Environmental Studies Course (commonly referred to as Custodial Maintenance).

All college courses at Graham are offered through Lakeland College based in Mattoon, IL. Due to the immense population of prisoners in Illinois, each inmate is only allowed to complete two vocational courses.

Since I was now maxed out on vocational courses I decided to get a job in the prison library. Although I wasn’t directly in the educational department, I was still able to assist other inmates in their personal quest to educate themselves while continuing to educate myself. After working the front desk in the library for two years, my boss insisted I take the Law Clerk exam. I had been studying law since the beginning of my sentence in order to assist my attorneys in the filing of my appeal and post-conviction petition, but I had doubts that my comprehension of the law was broad enough to pass a legal competency exam. I finally overcame my doubts and took the exam. Surprisingly I did very well on it. Now I am eligible to be a law clerk at any prison in Illinois.

Graham Correctional Center also offers academic courses worth 3-credit hours apiece, which may be applied towards an associate degree. I am enrolled in an academic course and 15-credits short of the 64-credits needed for my associate degree. The next step for me after receiving my associate degree is to see about the possibility of enrolling in a correspondence course. I have been in contact with Adams State College since they offer bachelor degrees through correspondence. They also allow my credits earned from Lakeland College to be transferred towards my bachelor degree program. Now the issue I am faced with is finding a proctor here at the prison to watch me take the exams on the correspondence courses.

Many of the good courses offered at Graham have been cancelled due to the state’s budget crisis. Among those classes were: Small Business Management, Data Processing, and Print Management. These courses were first to go since they are considered fields of work the average inmate returning home would not be employed in. Now the state budget crisis may keep me from being assigned a proctor due to the school now being understaffed.

If education is the gateway to a successful life after prison, my duty to educate myself isn’t fulfilled until I am released from prison. We must never get comfortable with the knowledge we have acquired while there is more knowledge out there for us to gain. While this country is faced with many economic hardships, prison education is one of the first items to be cut from your state’s budget. Inmates must take advantage of the opportunities available to them while they are still here because soon they may not be. As an inmate myself, I hate to see what little resources we have left taken from us one by one. Because of this, I am constantly asking myself, “What’s next?”

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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