In 2017, PNAP launched University Without Walls (UWW) at Stateville in partnership with Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). The launch marked the first time a secular, degree-granting program was offered at Stateville in more than 20 years. 

UWW is a non-traditional, competency-based degree-completion program that serves adult students who have professional, community, political, and life experiences that have resulted in significant college-level learning. With the support of PNAP Co-Directors of University Curriculum, Tim Barnett and Erica Meiners, as well as NEIU faculty, enrolled students established advisory teams made up of a community advisor with expertise in the students’ area of study and a faculty advisor from NEIU and developed portfolios of prior learning, learning goals, and a learning contract. Over the next two years, students took classes and independent studies and consulted closely with advisors to complete their degrees. Areas of study included Critical Carceral-Legal Studies, Poetic Justice in Black Culture, Transformative Justice, and Resource Development for Non-Profits.

The first cohort of seven students graduated in May 2019, marking a milestone in Illinois for the advancement of educational programming behind bars. The graduation ceremony featured remarks by Angela Davis, Emerita Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Juliana Stratton, Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, and a musical performance by Chance the Rapper. Graduates’ families, PNAP members, and fellow students joined the graduates to celebrate the occasion. Currently, five students are enrolled in the second UWW Stateville cohort.

2019 UWW graduates Darrell Fair and Devon Terrell give the commencement speech and a poetry reading at the graduation ceremony at Stateville.
Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton addresses students and guests at the 2019 UWW graduation ceremony at Stateville.


The UWW Program at Stateville welcomed a second cohort of students in January 2020 (Michael Bell, Reginald BoClair, Darnell Lane, Juan Luna, and Daniel Perkins), and these men are completing NEIU independent studies, PNAP classes, and academic/community projects of their own to fulfill the requirements of the University Without Walls degree. COVID-19 has slowed their progress, but we estimate a graduation date in the spring or fall semester of 2022. To view all of the portraits created for this cohort click here.

Michael Bell by Ruth Poor / Photo by Ricardo Bouyett

Michael Bell was born on the Southeast Side of Chicago and raised by college-educated parents who stressed the importance of education to their three sons. Attending college and earning a degree was not an option for their boys, though they made many sacrifices to ensure each had high-quality educational opportunities.

At age 14, Mike suffered the devastating losses of his Dad, grandmother, best friend, and dog. These losses deeply affected him, and his life was knocked off course. This altered trajectory culminated in the tragic events of 1990, for which he is still incarcerated today. Mike’s educational journey in prison began as a search for answers about the flaws in his own personal behaviors that led to his incarceration. For a lifer, educational opportunities were once non-existent, as the IDOC deemed lifers unworthy of education.

It wasn’t until 2017, at Stateville C.C., that he was given an opportunity through the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project to take college-level courses. That’s when he discovered the facilities educational community. In 2019 his dream of a college degree was reborn, as he sat on a prison work crew as a janitor, fighting back tears as he watched men he had taken classes with receive degrees in front of their family and friends. It was at that moment that Mike swore he would do all that he could to go from janitor to graduate. Later that same year Mike was accepted into Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls degree program.

He has used his life and experiences to author three books on teen/gang violence and bullying prevention. His Depth Area is Violence Prevention and Youth Development, and he hopes to use his education and unique first-person perspective to advocate for and educate young people. He aims to be an example of what love, support, education, and perseverance can do for a kid society deemed to be worthless.

He believes this is the debt he owes to the family he disgraced, the community he terrorized, and those he victimized. He understands he can never return what he has taken, but he feels it is his duty at least to pay it forward by helping others. Mike writes: “I stand upon every battle, every struggle, and every suffering experienced by every Black soul who lived before me. I stand upon the history of those who fought and died for a better future for generations of people they would never meet. I recognize my violation. Through my words and actions, I say to them, ‘Never again! I am sorry!’”

Reginald BoClair by Helen Sanchez-Cortes

Reginald BoClair is an incarcerated student who resides at Stateville C.C. He is currently working toward earning a non-traditional bachelor’s degree in Contemporary Studies of Antiquitous African Cultures and Values through the University Without Walls program at Northeastern Illinois University.

Reginald is a son of Chicago. He was raised in the Southeast neighborhood of Chatham, where he learned at a very young age the importance of education. He graduated from Chicago Vocational High School, where he majored in auto body and fender, and where he developed his interest in history.

He has studied both history and religion extensively, which has culminated in the birth of “Tehuti,” though most know him as BoClair. He is a self-taught spiritualist and purveyor of African-centered thought. He has extensive experience in the reading and writing of legal arguments and petitions and is a mentor to other inmates.

He has chaired groups and taught classes, ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to Victim Impact and Bible Study. He has also participated in various Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project courses, such as “Art and Empire,” “Envisioning Criminal Justice Reform,” “UWW Critical Research and Writing,” “At Home in the World,” “Introduction to Visual Criminology,” “Violence in Society,” “Writing the Memoir,” and “Race, Class, Gender and Justice.”

Reginald writes of education: “A college degree is important to me because it represents both self-redemption and self-validation. When I was chronologically at the age where I should have been graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree, I was instead involved in a death penalty trial, fighting for my life. Nonetheless, I never stopped learning. For this reason, it is imperative that my accumulated lessons learned count for something. At the very least, they show that learning does not come only through the classroom. And, as I often stated before my enrollment in college, ‘I may not have any college degrees, but I do have a Ph.D. in life.’

“I believe that a college degree might help me to realize what I perceive as my purpose in life, which is the perpetuation of African-centered thought. Having been incarcerated for a long time, I’ve been unable to participate in society. This college degree program serves as a mental reentry point. I want to do something constructive that will pay homage to those who came before me, respect those who are contemporary with me, and leave a legacy for those who come after me.”

Fun fact: Reginald is an original Chicago Deep Howze Muzik head. His love for Howze Muzik is outweighed only by his love for his family.

Darnell Lane by Helen Sanchez-Cortes

Darnell Lane is a 50-year-young student of life and all that is love. He has three adult sons, ages 35, 34, and 20, and two young grandchildren, ages 8 and 7. He categorizes his life as potential delayed because, as a youth, he did not have mentors to push him to excel, to achieve his full potential. Although he was sharp in school, he did not put forth the effort necessary to succeed at the highest levels. Honestly, he took his smarts and school for granted.

Darnell is greatly appreciative to the faculty at Northeastern Illinois University and its University Without Walls degree program for taking a chance on him, providing him an opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree from such a prestigious university. This program has changed the way he views himself and the accomplishments, however minute, he has attained during his lifetime. As a youth, he never thought of attending college. To him, college was something for the privileged few. Being born and bred in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, he did not know of anyone enrolled in college or who aspired to enroll in college.

Darnell’s Depth Area is Transformative Justice through Youth Advocacy. His hope is to become a liaison for our young people. He wants to be part of the solution, to transform the lives of the youth of our inner cities, to be an advocate for the young. Darnell writes, “For too long adults have dictated to the youth when they can have an opinion or when they can speak about issues that affect their lives. The youth are the most vulnerable of all populations, because they do not have adequate resources to remove themselves from harmful situations in their own homes, let alone from wider society. It’s time for adults to listen to the young people as they share their insights into age-old questions that adults have yet to answer. Yet all young people need someone in their lives to lend a helping hand, a word of advice, and at times a stern lecture filled with tough love, to help them make better decisions, both for themselves and for humanity as a whole. I aim to be that someone.”

Fun fact: Darnell’s hobbies include doing crossword, logic, and Sudoku puzzles.

Juan Luna by Ruth Poor / Photo by Ricardo Bouyett

Juan Luna was born on the 16th of February 1974 in Mexico. He came to the United States at a very young age, and English is his second language. He’s the oldest of four children, and he has one child himself. Juan’s wife is from Holland, and he is learning to speak Dutch.

Right now he is working on getting a bachelor’s degree through the University Without Walls program at Northeastern Illinois University. His Depth Area is going to be Chicano/a Art and Restorative Justice. In time he would like to get a master’s degree in Chicano/a Art and a degree in English-Spanish translation.

Juan’s dream is to become a well-known artist. He would like to bring people together with his art and to show that we are all human beings with rights. He wants to become an activist and to fight for the rights of every undocumented person, especially those who are in prison and don’t know much about the law.

Juan loves to draw and paint. Some of his favorite artwork includes imagery from the Day of the Dead, Aztec art, Surrealism, and Chicano/a art. His other interests include working on old muscle cars, from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. He also likes to race and is into low riders. His favorite sports teams are the Las Vegas Raiders, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Blackhawks. He is into tattoos, as well, and would like to become a tattoo artist.

Daniel Perkins by Helen Sanchez-Cortes

Daniel Perkins was born in Aurora, Illinois, on March 9, 1976, and is now 45 years old. He is a proud parent of three amazing boys named Danny, Jacob, and Jackson, who are ages 24, 18, and 15, respectively.

Dan is part of a powerful learning community here at Stateville. He’s an eager and ambitious student in Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls program. His past is certainly checkered; this is his third and final time in prison. His first IDOC incarceration was in 1998; however, the groundwork for trouble was laid well before then. His contact with the criminal justice system began in 1991, because of petty delinquency. A life without money, a father, and guidance combined with an angry and rebellious spirit had him wrestling with the law and drug and alcohol abuse for 25 years.

Dan’s first college education came from Lakeland Community College during his initial incarceration. He obtained a G.E.D., an Associate’s in Liberal Arts, as well as a certificate in Business Management. He paroled, went home and enrolled at ITT. That was short-lived, as informational technology did not inspire him as he thought it would. Dan worked for numerous construction companies across the ebb and flow of irresponsibility and immaturity, but his experience, talent, and passion grew, so he joined the carpenters union and completed a four-year journeyman’s apprenticeship. At the time of his latest arrest, he was the owner and installer of River Country Construction Co.

A voracious reader, Dan works passionately on his studies. His major is Social Entrepreneurship with a focus on Positive Youth, Community, and Workforce Development. He has an affinity for the YouthBuild model, which melds education, construction, and leadership skills, while imparting valuable mentorship to at-risk youth. UWW has also instilled in Dan an appreciation for all of his educational experience. He’s seen how fragile and fleeting life’s moments truly are, what a blessing it is to have an opportunity like this to grow. His goal is to pay forward everything that he’s been given; he regards his education as a gift. Dan wants to give back all he’s taken and to heal what he’s hurt. Nothing will be more rewarding than providing his community with what it lacks: love, education, employment, and opportunity. God has blessed him with newly discovered evidence in his case, and he is optimistic he’ll make it home someday and realize his dreams.

Oh yeah! Dan is ‘the guy in the hat.’ He remarks, “I’ve worn a ball cap since one would sit on my head. It made me feel like a baseball player. The guys here regularly harangue me because, still today, I wear my hat in my cell, at my desk, in my bunk, and even to the shower.”