When Rachel Ventura was running for the Illinois State Senate in 2022, she agreed to meet with a group of incarcerated men interested in public policy.

The men were ready for her. They wanted to know if this was more than a one-time, politically opportunistic visit. Would she ever come back? If she won, would she consider them her constituents? 

And they had a proposal: Hire someone like us as an intern.

The following spring, Ventura, a Democrat, became the first state senator in Illinois — and likely the country — to offer a legislative internship behind bars. 

 Stateville Correctional Center is in Ventura’s district, but Illinois law prevents the more than 3,000 men that reside there — as well as anyone who is serving time in prison — from voting. The internship offered a way for them to help shape the criminal justice policies that directly affect them. 

“The incarcerated community is perhaps the largest group of people who are impacted by policy they have absolutely no say in,” said Raul Dorado, one of Ventura’s current interns. 

A need for more experiential learning in prison

Prison educators do their best to offer incarcerated students the same academic experience as students on campus. But students in prison rarely have access to experiential learning like internships that are essential to a college education. And there is little opportunity for people to use their degrees inside. 

A few places are starting to address this gap in programming. In Colorado and Maine, incarcerated graduates of master’s degree programs have been allowed to teach undergraduate classes and get paid outside wages. Incarcerated paralegals and law students in Minnesota have done externships with law firms. Several prison education programs, including in Illinois, hire former students to work as tutors or teaching assistants, sometimes as their official prison job assignment.  

Ventura said one of her initial concerns with offering an internship at Stateville was that she didn’t want to exploit the participants’ labor. As a result, she worked with DePaul University so they could earn college credit for their work at no cost to them. 

Eric Watkins, who was the first to propose the idea to Ventura, said while education inside has expanded somewhat in recent years, opportunities to use that education have not. 

Most jobs in prison rely on physical labor, not on professional skills. Opportunities such as Ventura’s internship recognize inside graduates’ accomplishments: They are seen and valued as “able-minded people” who can contribute to society, not just “able-bodied people” who keep the prison running, said Watkins, who earned a master’s degree from North Park Theological Seminary. 

Creating an internship behind bars

View from outside Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet Illinois on April 3, 2020. The facility is home to what may be the first ever legislative internship offered behind bars. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

It’s been nearly a year since Ventura hired the first incarcerated intern, Lynn Green. At the time, Green was an undergraduate student at Northwestern University and serving a 50-year sentence. Green has since earned his bachelor’s. Much of Green’s internship was spent figuring out the logistics of running such a program behind bars. Ventura, for instance, learned that using paper clips could prevent documents from getting to the interns for weeks because of security concerns. 

Unlike the interns on Ventura’s staff at her office in Joliet, Green didn’t have access to the internet, a workspace or even a computer. He was reliant on outside staff for research support and faced challenges with communication. At one point, he lost almost all his paperwork and research when he was reassigned to another housing unit. 

Green’s work primarily focused on juvenile justice reform. Last year, Ventura filed a bill that would have shut down county juvenile detention facilities and transferred their authority to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The bill was an attempt to provide oversight to county detention centers, including one that was shut down by the courts at the end of 2023 for failure to meet state standards for care of youth in custody. 

Ventura wanted to take a different approach in a new juvenile justice bill, so she had Green scour through inspection reports of county youth detention facilities to catalog the most egregious breaches of state standards and identify solutions such as alternative sentencing and wraparound services. Green did his work in a parking space-sized cell with the constant din of feet plodding up stairs to the upper tiers of his cell block. He often felt isolated. He kept going because, above all, he didn’t want to let the senator down.

Green also interviewed men at Stateville who had served time in youth facilities about their experiences and what interventions could have made a difference for them. Their stories helped demonstrate why the bill is important, Ventura said. 

As a result of Green’s experience, Ventura decided to expand the number of interns to allow them to work together as a cohort. She also hired another outside intern, Jenny Schulty, to serve as a dedicated liaison between her office and the incarcerated interns. 

In January, three new incarcerated interns, Joe Dole, Dorado and Watkins, came on board. Green has also stayed on with the official title of “legislative intern mentor.”

Between the four of them, the interns already have years of experience working on legislation and policy. For instance, Dole and Dorado co-founded a nonprofit, Parole Illinois, tackling issues related to parole, which was eliminated in Illinois in 1978. 

Ventura also recently filed a bill Dole wrote last year that would remove a provision in the Illinois corrections code that increases sentences as a way to “deter others from committing the same crime.” Currently, that provision can be used to increase how long someone has to serve, but the way those sentences are calculated is extremely complicated and opaque, Ventura said. 

“Who even knows that that person got an increased sentence as a deterrent to the rest of the people in the community?” she said.  

That bill, Ventura said, is a direct result of working with Dole. He had unique insight into identifying problems with the current sentencing structure that Ventura said she wouldn’t have recognized on her own. 

Setting an example

The men say Ventura’s support helps elevate the work they were already doing. 

“It gives us a chance to set an example of what other incarcerated men here can accomplish if they set their minds to using their time productively,” said Dole, who like Dorado graduated from Northeastern Illinois University.

They also stress how rare their situation is among the incarcerated population, both in terms of the internship as well as the degree programs available to them. Stateville currently has four universities and a community college offering classes there because of its proximity to Chicago; many prisons in Illinois don’t offer any higher education opportunities at all. They are also unique because they all had life or de facto life sentences and have been able to earn a degree. 

Ventura has had other state lawmakers reach out to find out more about how they might run a similar program, she said. In addition, she recently expanded the program to include two interns confined within the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which faced a programming gap for young people who remained in custody after completing high school. 

Ventura’s understanding of her own role has also evolved after working with the men at Stateville. She originally wondered, “If I want to be the voice for the voiceless, what does that look like?” 

She quickly realized that she was asking the wrong question. 

“They are very much not voiceless,” she said. “My job is not to be their voice. My job is to provide the platform.”

This story was co-published by WBEZ Chicago.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.