News Local/State

Senator Bennett Says Education In Illinois Prisons Is ‘Inadequate’

Scott Bennett on the senate floor.

State Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) on the Senate floor. Bennett said he believes it's the responsibility for state government to provide educational opportunities to incarcerated people. AP file photo from May 2016. Seth Perlman/AP

For the second time within the past year, State. Sen Scott Bennett is collecting donated dictionaries to benefit men incarcerated at the Danville Correctional Center in east-central Illinois. 

Bennett, a Champaign Democrat and former prosecutor, said the reason he’s embarked upon the effort, in partnership with Danville Area Community College, is because there’s not enough dictionaries to meet the demand in Danville and other prisons across the state.

“There are these materials in prisons. But what happens, ultimately, is there’s so many people who want to use them, so many people who want to gain knowledge and improve their literacy that there’s not enough of these books to go around,” he said. 

Dictionaries for donation can be dropped off at Sen. Bennett's legislative offices in Danville (Vermilion Co. Admin. Bldg./former federal bldg., 201 N. Vermilion, Suite 323) and Champaign (Illinois Terminal Bldg., 45 E. University, Suite 206).

This year, the Illinois Department of Corrections requested and received $350,000 to spend on educational materials for its prisons, but Bennett said the extra funding is not enough to make up for years of budget cuts.

“Extras like prison libraries have certainly been casualties of the budget cuts you’ve seen,” he said. “For me, that doesn’t sit well at all. If someone is trying to use their time wisely — I’m saying this as a former prosecutor… if they want to use that time in a productive way, to me, it’s a no-brainer we have to give them the materials to do that.”

Bennett said DACC, which teaches classes in the prison, specifically requested dictionary donations. Bennett said most household dictionaries are  “taking up space on most of our bookshelves.” He said looking a word up online isn’t an option for incarcerated people.

“Since online materials aren’t available inside prisons this is the only way they can improve their vocabulary,” Bennett said.

Bennett said he’s received 42 dictionaries since the drive began in August. That material will be given to DACC to give to the inmates at the Danville prison, he said. 

Reflecting on access to education in Illinois prisons generally, Bennett said, “it’s inadequate to say the least.” The state senator said the vast majority of people incarcerated in Illinois prisons will be released at some point. 

“In my opinion, we want them educated and we want them employable,” Bennett said. “It’s hard enough with a criminal record, but if you’re illiterate or you have a limited amount of skills when you come out, your choices are also limited.”

Bennett said he believes it’s the responsibility of the state government to ensure incarcerated people receive the education and information they need to make better choices upon their release. But, he said, that’s a tall order when the state is struggling to fund other necessary services, like its public education system.

“There is a limited amount of money,” he said. “As long as that remains the case, there’s no question prisons are going to get priority after our K-12 schools.”

Bennett said he’s hopeful a proposed progressive state income tax will bring the necessary revenue to expand educational opportunities inside Illinois prisons. 

“To me, that’s a very smart investment of our tax dollars. Instead of us paying tax dollars to warehouse large amounts of people in prison, give them the skills to be out in society, paying for themselves and paying taxes that help everybody else in society as well,” Bennett said. “But that’s assuming we have an adequate amount of money to spend on other things first.”

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