Think Tank Member Biographies

Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a Northeastern Illinois University (UWW) graduate, having earned a bachelor’s degree in Urban-American Jurisprudence and Transformative Justice Education. He is currently completing a master’s degree from North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts at Stateville Correctional Center. Prior to the 1993 case which placed him in prison, he had no criminal background and was completing his third year of college at 17 years old. Eric was a minor (17/18) during the time of the offenses charged, and there is no evidence connecting him to the case. This fact in conjunction with reliable numerous alibi eyewitnesses supports his actual innocence. He was convicted under accountability (solely as an accomplice) in relation to a single homicide.

Eric was sentenced to natural life, while the 23-year-old principal (shooter) received a much lesser sentence and was released in 2015. Throughout the 27-year history of his case, Eric has maintained a flawlessly nonviolent prison record. Eric is a scholar, author, artist, and a committed servant to his community. He has designed an educational model based in restorative justice practices intended to teach inner-city youth civil and criminal law towards self-awareness, crime reduction, and protection of minors’ rights. In addition to his BA and MA work, Eric has completed DePaul University restorative justice programs and North Park University urban-community studies programs.

Eric consistently transforms his education into application for the real world. As a DePaul University Restorative Justice (Inside/Out Program) Trainer, and DePaul and PNAP Think Tank member, he has produced legislation for the betterment of communities, as well as workshops on domestic violence, awareness, and prevention. Erica successfully represented himself pro se in a lawsuit which has helped thousands of prisoners nationwide receive healthcare and compensation. And he is also a father of two.

Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan has been incarcerated for over 28 years. Although he was convicted of a violent crime and came to prison with only an eighth grade education, he has an exemplary prison record that does not consist of any violence. He has educated himself by obtaining a high school diploma and earning college credits from DePaul and Northwestern Universities. He has also obtained a plethora of certificates and appeared in the 2016-17 Covenant Companion Magazine for his academic achievements and spiritual walk.

Michael was also part of the Stateville Debate Team. He debated to bring parole back to Illinois in front of 10% of its legislators and was interviewed for WGN 9 News in 2018. He is in two different Think Tanks, and he was instrumental in drafting House Bill 2541, a bill that mandates IDOC enact non-partisan voter education as part of the exit process from IDOC. Michael is also a painter whose artwork has been displayed in an exhibit in downtown Chicago. He has earned a full scholarship to North Park Theological Seminary for a Master’s Degree. He also has a non-profit organization for youth development. Michael is currently in the process of completing a book, and he is planning to pursue degrees in psychology and law when released.

The irony of his achievements in rehabilitation is that his more culpable co-defendant was released eight months ago, primarily because of a change in the law, while Michael is still incarcerated.

Howard Keller Jr.

Howard Keller Jr. is a GED tutor, published writer, poet, advocate for higher education in prison and criminal justice repair. He’s a graduate student at North Park Theological Seminary and has served as a student representative on the School of Restorative Arts multi-disciplinary review team. Howard is also a member of the PNAP Think Tank, as well as the DePaul Inside-Out Think Tank, and works as a co-facilitator with the Inside-Out Instructors Training Institute that prepares university professors, law enforcement personnel, and prison administrators from all over the world to teach college courses inside prisons.

Howard is also a barber. A graduate of Stateville’s accredited Barber College program, he uses his barber trade to demonstrate to potential students, policy-makers, and community members the far-reaching benefits of education in prison. Howard says: “With my barber skills, once I’m released, I don’t have to worry about standing in line for a job. The only line I’ll have to stand in is the one at the store when I’m purchasing my clippers. I’ll be my own employer.”

Howard is also driven by a deep sense of personal obligation to helping at-risk youth. As a former victim of violence and adolescent alcohol abuse, one day he wants to work with organizations that provide assistance to young people with histories of trauma, and who are at increased risk of negative coping through alcohol abuse.

Howard is the kind of person who will benefit the community: reliable, hardworking, and committed to helping disadvantaged people succeed. He is also a glaring example of why the policy of keeping rehabilitated people in prison is ineffective and a waste of precious resources. Howard was incarcerated at age 22, and his release is set for 2055, when he will be 77 years old.

Carlvosier Smith

Carlvosier “Carl” Smith has been incarcerated for 18 years on a 75-year sentence. He will be eligible for release at the age of 97.

Carl grew up in a single-parent family on the Westside of Chicago (Lawndale/Homan Square area) after the sudden death of his father. He attended Marshall High School as a medical and health services student, with the aspiration of becoming a physician. While at Marshall, he excelled in athletics and was voted President of the Student Council.

After high school, Carl attended Northeastern Illinois University and Illinois State University, where he was pre-med with a major in biology. He was also appointed a Senator in Student Government and pledged a prestigious African-American social organization. Due to an injury, Carl returned to Chicago and was subsequently incarcerated.

Since his incarceration, he has worked tirelessly to grow as a person while improving the conditions of his current and former social locations. At Menard Correctional, Carl was a healthcare hospice caretaker, law clerk, and incarcerated resident, and Officer barber. In addition, he developed and taught IDOC’s first real estate management course created by an incarcerated resident. Once transferred to Stateville, he furthered his education by enrolling in North Park, Northwestern, and PNAP courses. He was one of nine students originally accepted to both North Park and Northwestern’s degree programs. Carl also proposed an organized Stateville’s annual basketball tournament and secured a jersey donation from the NBA Retired Players Association.

Carl is a published author and scholar, selected on numerous occasions to represent the incarcerated population before lawmakers, administrators, prison officials, clergy persons, and concerned citizens. Currently, he has partnered with investors to revitalize under-resourced communities by repurposing closed schools as affordable living space. In addition, he is a grad student pursuing ministerial credentials from the Evangelical Covenant Church, the parent denomination of North Park University.

Lonnie Smith

Lonnie Smith is from Danville, Illinois, and is a 54-year-old man who was sentenced to 120 years in 1989. Since his incarceration, he has taken advantage of every educational opportunity available to him. Last year, he was selected for the North Park Theological Seminary master’s degree program at Stateville. 

He has worked for many years in Illinois Correctional Industries, where he is still employed now. The reason he has stayed productive in prison is because he is trying to rectify the terrible crime he committed as a young adult. 

His motivation for bettering himself is to eventually work with at-risk youth. He would like to mentor youth in violence prevention and non-violent communication.

Rodney Love

Rodney Love is a Maroon. He comes from the Southside of Chicago, Back of the Yards. He is a father of three, one boy and two girls. His son is 23, and his daughters are 19 and 18. He became a grandfather at the age of 38, and he is now 39. He is an innocent man, and pursuit of the law motivates him. He practices civil and criminal law, and he should have his paralegal certificate in a few months.

Rodney’s day consists of reading history, studying politics, exercising, and learning all forms of religion. He teaches and helps others to the best of his ability. He is now a person who wants to reform the system, to save the youth from jail/death. He wants to mentor the youth and to change laws to help poor people in Illinois, i.e. bringing jobs to the poor communities. He wants to help stop mass incarceration and to protect voting rights. Once that happens, we can put people in place who will serve our interests.

Joseph Dole

Joseph Dole is a writer, artist, and activist. In recognition of his social justice activism, he was one of the first people in prison to be awarded a Davis-Putter Scholarship (2017). Joe now has a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University, with a focus on Critical Carceral-Legal Studies. He is also a member of the National Lawyers Guild and a “jailhouse lawyer,” who is constantly engaged in litigating FOIA complaints and assisting others in filing collateral attacks on their convictions and sentences.

Joe has won numerous writing awards, including first place in the prestigious Columbia Journal Winter Contest (2017). He is the author of two books, A Costly American Hatred (2014) and Control Units & Supermaxes: A National Security Threat (2016), and he has had writings included in academic journals, like the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy (2021), as well as anthologies, including Hell Is A Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement (2016).

Joe’s artwork has been displayed in numerous exhibits around the country and used in several campaigns. Recently he was awarded an Illinois Humanities Council Envisioning Justice Grant (2021).

He has been wrongfully incarcerated for over two decades, and spent an entire decade of his life in solitary confinement (which the United Nations defines as torture after 15 days).

Joe is one of the cofounders of Parole Illinois, and is both its Policy Director and serves on its Board of Directors. Over the years, he has written several legislative proposals and worked on numerous pieces of legislation. He often guest-lectures via phone in college classrooms and has also presented papers at academic conferences.

Finally, and most importantly, he is a loving father and grandfather to two beautiful daughters and a grandson. 

Michael Simmons

Michael Simmons is 41 years of age. He has been incarcerated for nearly two decades. He grew up first on the Southside of Chicago, then all over the city, as his family struggled through poverty. As a single supermother of four, Michael’s Mom worked tirelessly to ensure that he and his siblings had a better life than she did growing up, something that Michael wishes he’d learned to appreciate early on.

Coming from a long line of Mississippi sharecroppers, Michael’s Mom and Grandmother are ordained ministers, and are responsible for Michael’s optimistic view amidst the negative environment of prison.

Michael considers himself fortunate to have participated in various post-secondary educational programs through DePaul’s and North Park’s Inside-Out programs. These programs have been an integral part of Michael’s personal and educational transformation, and he laments the lack of such programs in prisons downstate, like Menard. Most people have described Michael as “cool” and “laid-back.” He says he’s still pretty cool, but understands through education that he can no longer afford to be laid back, with so much injustice among us.

Today, Michael is a member of Stateville’s PNAP Think Tank, as well as DePaul’s Inside-Out Think Tank. He is also a second-year graduate student, studying to earn a degree in Christian ministry with a Restorative Arts track. Michael aspires to be a youth pastor. He looks forward to a prison-to-school pipeline and a greater focus on decarceration in Illinois.

Devon Terrell

Devon Terrell is a Chicago Southside native, raised in the crack-cocaine war-on-drugs era of the 1980s and 90s. His parents were both children of the Chicago Housing Authority. His mother being from the once Stateway Gardens Housing Projects and father being from the once Ida B. Wells Homes, both in Bronzeville. As the youngest of his father’s five children and the eldest of his mother’s four, Devon would describe that dynamic as a metaphor for this life. Always in the middle, pulled by both sides.

Growing up in a community stricken with poverty and its social ills, Devon was no stranger to trauma, abuse, violence, hopelessness, and depression. These impacted his perspective and ultimately shaped his worldview or lack of one. Despite the gallant effort his parents made to combat the outside world by maintaining as much a positive, healthy, and loving home environment as possible, the influences of streetlife impressed on young minds was the path that most of his generation would follow. 

Devon was a dreamer and an adventurous child. He loved music and art. He was involved in numerous organized sports. He was a boy scout and participated in church activities like choir and volunteer work. He enjoyed video games, movies, and pranking his younger siblings. His first love was his mother, who is the center of his world and the foundation of love and support. His stepfather raised him since the age of two, and from him Devon learned the value of family, hard work, and the importance of character.

Devon was a bright star student, but the public school system eventually dimmed his light and snuffed out any academic potential he may have had. Poor school funding, outdated reading material, ineffective curricula, and understaffed and under-resourced teachers were part of the reason he wasn’t fully cared for as a student. Compounded by troubles at home and in his community, school became a place to get away, play sports, chase girls, and have fun. He would tell you he didn’t understand how critical education was to lifting oneself out of emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, and economic oppression. Even though he was pushed through high school and earned his diploma, Devon was extremely unprepared for life and society as an adult.

After graduating high school, Devon attended the University of Arkansas at Pine-Bluff on academic probation. After completing a full semester and returning home for the summer, youth and immaturity along with other family dramas caused him to stay in Chicago. Without a college education, any vocational training, lack of direction, nor discipline Devon chose to make a living for himself amongst his family and friends in the streets. 

At 22 years old, Devon experienced both the highest and lowest points of his life in a matter of months. In June 2004, Devon’s girlfriend gave birth to his son. And, in December of the same year, Devon was taken into police custody, never knowing freedom since.

Where there is tragedy, there is opportunity. Since Devon has been incarcerated he has become a published poet, certified paralegal, college graduate, an artist, mentor, social justice activist, and more. Though those are just a few of his accomplishments, they are not the sum total of who he has matured to be. At 40 years old Devon is a loving man of understanding. He is selfless and works to help the people around him dream bigger, to reach their fullest potential. His goal is to incorporate every experience and everything he’s learned to help nurture a healthier generation of children for our future.

Benny Rios

Donjuan “Benny” Rios is 43 years old and he has been incarcerated since 2002. He is currently serving a 45-year sentence under Truth in Sentencing. He grew up in the Pilsen community of Chicago and also resided in the town of Cicero. Currently, he is a grad student earning an MA in Christian ministry and restorative arts through North Park University and Theological Seminary. He has been with his loving and supportive wife, Melly, for five years and together they have two wonderful daughters and four beautiful grandchildren.

Benny’s childhood was far from ordinary in that he was raised by a mom who suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, and depression, and he was also heavily influenced by gang culture since his birth. At a very young age, he was identified as a gang member because of the street he lived on and because of who his family members were. He and his family endured many devastating tragedies and losses due to gang life, including: the wrongful conviction of his oldest brother at 18 for murder; the gang-related murder of his other brother at 17; and the eventual incarceration of Benny himself when he was 21. 

In spite of these hardships and trauma, Benny felt pushed to succeed even though he is in prison. He is a Christian man of faith and is called to “love his neighbor as himself.” For the past two decades, Benny has been transforming his life not only for his own good, but for the good of others and his community. He has a passion for peacemaking, living in unity, and fighting against injustices. 

Around 2014 or so, Benny began to get involved with the newly introduced higher ed programs at Stateville Correctional Center. He started off with the L. T. O. Math Skills and Economics Class, and soon after that he got involved with classes offered by Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, North Park, Northwestern, and DePaul. These organizations and universities have been instrumental in shaping the way that he plans to help people in prison and help hurting communities when he returns home. The educators from these institutions have provided Benny and many others with the opportunity to magnify their voices and show their humanity.

Today Benny is a published writer and is currently in line to have two other works published. His publications have been incorporated into the curricula of some universities, and he’s even had an excerpt of one of his writings published in Incarceration and the Law, Cases and Materials, Tenth Edition. Aside from that, he is dedicated to combating the unjust laws that target people of color, which include the repeal of Truth in Sentencing, the repeal of the accountability law, and the reinstatement of parole for all in Illinois. Benny’s mission is not only to proclaim the Gospel, but to live it in a way that does justice, demonstrates love, and heals people and communities.

Raúl Dorado

Raúl Dorado is an incarcerated author, criminal (in)justice and prison reform advocate. He recently graduated from Northeastern Illinois University’s “University Without Walls” Bachelor’s Degree program with a B.A. in Justice Policy Advocacy. He is a co-founder of Parole Illinois, a prisoner-led advocacy organization. As an inside board member and in collaboration with outside members, Raúl is committed to educating the public about the many flaws of our legal system and informing policy that impacts the incarcerated and their families.