Robert Curry was born on the Southeast Side of Chicago in the Bronzeville community in August 1978. He was raised by his mother Betty L. Cotton, maternal grandmother Betty J. Cotton, and maternal aunts Michelle Cotton, D’Andrea Mosely, and Robin Adams. Robert was the firstborn son, grandson, and nephew of his maternal family’s tribe. The only example of manhood Robert had in his early childhood was that of his mother’s brother, Kevin Cotton, who was, however, rarely present. Robert’s grandmother worked for the Chicago Public School system as an educator and administrator. Mrs. Cotton, Granny BJ to Robert, always stressed the importance of education and how it was the only tool that would ensure change and equal opportunity in this country. Robert adhered to his grandmother’s ideal while he attended school, until…
Robert encountered poverty at a very young age, and the violence he experienced would alter his life. At age 5 or 6 Robert was both a witness and victim as he stood next to his Granny BJ while she was robbed at gunpoint. By the time Robert was 11 years old he had been robbed, attacked, and beaten by other young men from neighboring communities. At age 12 Robert had his first serious encounter with police, and this resulted in his first arrest. These events sent Robert’s life spiraling away from education, and he found himself in the pipeline to prison as an agent of violence. The symptoms of poverty had deeply affected him at this point.
In 2005 Robert was falsely accused and wrongfully convicted of a murder and attempted murder, and sentenced to a term of 50 years in prison. The state demands he serve 100% of that sentence. Robert was sent to Menard C.C. and spent years there without any real opportunities for higher education or self-improvement. Robert made the choice to self-educate and change course. In August 2018, he transferred to Stateville C.C. and after a month in the facility he came across a PNAP application. Robert filled it out, submitted it, and in 2019 he attended his first PNAP/college-level class, “Emancipation and Abolition of Slavery,” taught by Kai Parker.
Months into the spring Robert was extended an invite by PNAP to attend NEIU’s University Without Walls graduation. This was Robert’s first chance, at 40 years old, to be in a space that provided an opportunity to achieve a college degree and to share real community while in prison. Robert writes, “NEIU’s first UWW cohort inspired me.” Robert recognized something special in this opportunity even though he was so far from the outside world.
Because of Robert’s life and lifestyle choices, college was never a realistic thought. Today Robert is a first-year NEIU UWW bachelor’s degree student with a Depth Area in Community Architecture with a focus on Psychological Healing through Arts, Spiritual Transformation, and Economic Development. His goal is to help build a vibrant community grounded in creativity and cultural significance.
Benny Rios Donjuan was born and raised in the Pilsen community of Chicago, and he also resided in Cicero, Illinois, throughout his teens. Benny’s childhood was plagued by adversity. He was raised by his mom, who suffered from mental health issues, alcoholism, and depression—also by his grandma, an aunt, the local gang, and some of the other people in his neighborhood. He grew up with two older brothers; the oldest was wrongfully convicted of a murder when he was just 18, for which he served half of a 34-year sentence, and three years after that, his other brother was murdered when at 17 in a gang-related shooting.
Despite the trauma that Benny experienced throughout his childhood, adolescence, and young adult years, he was resilient and took on many responsibilities. With education, he had a very problematic journey up until high school because of gang confrontations. Ultimately, he dropped out in his sophomore year. He later enrolled to get his GED at Morton College and received his diploma when he was 17. He eventually graduated from the Computer Learning Center with a diploma in Computer Business Systems and Computer Networking.
Benny is now a writing advisor and a teaching fellow with North Park University’s program at Stateville prison. He is a published author and an artist. He has co-produced a song, “Bring It Back,” along with his group “Hopeful Voices” through the rebirth of Sound Music Program at Stateville. He is also part of Highpoint Church Leadership Team, among other things. Benny earned his MA in Christian Ministry and Restorative Arts through North Park Theological Seminary in 2022. Currently, he is enrolled in Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls program in collaboration with PNAP. He’s pursuing a BA with a Depth Area in Conflict Transformation and Transformative Practices.
When asked about his goals, Benny states, “My aspirations are many, but all have to do with serving and leading others and our communities. While in prison I make myself available in any way I can to uplift myself and our community by being an educator, a student, a counselor, and an advocate. At some point I’d like to start my own non-profit organization that serves returning citizens, the youth, and the loved ones of those incarcerated.” One of Benny’s main goals is to disrupt and dismantle all forms of injustice and violence through transformative practices. Benny’s primary identity is in Christ, he is a follower of Jesus. The driving force and motivation behind all of this is love: love for God, love for his fellow human beings, and love for himself.
Tylon Hudson was born on February 20, 1973, to a loving mother of four who instilled in him the importance of being a support to those in need. The teachings of his mother became the fabric of his character. Consequently, at the age of 19, Tylon acquired a certified nursing assistant certification from the College of Lake County, Illinois, so he could be that arm for the aged community. He had hopes of returning to college, to attend nursing school.
Tylon joined his Uncle Robert, a veteran nurse at a nursing home in Chicago. At this time, Tylon also married and had one daughter. He used this employment opportunity as a springboard to other jobs, where he received promotions and awards for patient care (e.g. Alden Princeton nursing home, Alden Morrow nursing home, and Mayfield Care nursing home in Chicago). Also, Tylon has had the opportunity to engage in the same work outside of Chicago (for instance, Brior Place nursing home in Indian Head Park, Illinois). He has also enjoyed working with our developmentally disabled at Somerset House in Chicago.
Tylon experienced a paradigm shift in employment as a health insurance representative for the University of Chicago Family First Health Care. He worked as a medical records clerk at Elmhurst Hospital, Christ Hospital, Evanston Hospital, and the University of Chicago Hospital, and received additional training through Professional Dynamic Network. Subsequently the University of Chicago hired Tylon as a medical records specialist for the Office of Reimbursement and Compliance.
After Tylon’s divorce, he experienced some mental trauma, and this was the catalyst to the shift in Tylon’s life. He is now at Stateville C.C. However, he continues to petition the courts to overturn his wrongful conviction. At Stateville, Tylon aids numerous individuals with their criminal and civil litigation endeavors, and provides critical solutions to life’s adversities.
Tylon was elated to learn that NEIU/UWW would allow him to participate in its degree program despite his incarceration. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree focusing on the healthcare disparities in the U.S. as related to aged and other marginalized people. This program is a privilege and the best thing that could have occurred at Stateville. PNAP/UWW provides him with much needed normalcy and a curriculum that will help him upon release to acquire employment and reacclimation upon his release. Tylon is very grateful to all involved in building and running this program.
Fun facts: Tylon exercises with individuals 25 years his junior, is able to run seven-minute miles, and is vegan.
Jerel Matthews was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. He comes from a West Indian family that immigrated to Chicago from Trinidad.
He is a father, brother, and abolitionist who has been incarcerated for the last 18 years. During his incarceration he has made a conscious effort to educate himself and to take advantage of any programs the PIC has to offer. He obtained an associate’s degree in Liberal Studies and became certified in construction occupations, as well as environmental service technology, while attending Lakeland College. Jerel loves history, particularly Black history, and he has felt an affinity for this subject since his childhood. After being incarcerated at Menard prison for ten years with limited educational programs in place, his journey landed him at Stateville, where he began to participate in PNAP classes. This is where he was introduced to the concept of abolition and began to uproot the parts of himself founded in destructive and colonial ways of thinking.
PNAP is also where Jerel was given the opportunity to fill out an application for Northeastern Illinois University’s non-traditional degree program, University Without Walls. He was accepted and is now in the third cohort of the program working toward a non-traditional bachelor’s degree with a Depth Area in Community Healing and Building centered around African American Studies focusing on Youth.
Jerel is a proponent of ending mass incarceration. He believes it starts with the youth in marginalized communities like Auburn Gresham where he comes from and similar places around the United States. He was once a liability to his community, contributing to activities that tore it down. Awakened during his incarceration to just how deeply his way of life and transgressions affected families and communities, he now strives to be an asset to those communities and to rebuild what he tore down as a youth. He wants to galvanize people, especially the youth, to collectively work towards reimagining, restructuring, and reinvesting in these communities.
Besides PNAP Jerel is also in community with the nonprofit organization REAL. He is a former athlete who loves baseball, basketball, and football—and is probably one of the only Black guys at Stateville who follows soccer. He is interested in media and aspires to start his own media company, to shape how people of color are portrayed. He feels that narrative power is an important weapon that the right people need to possess.
Chester McKinney was born to Mr. and Mrs. Chester McKinney Jr. and raised in Aurora, Illinois. He was the ninth of ten children and baptized in the Lord (C.O.G.I.C.) at an early age. He’s the father of two adult sons, Chester and Jordan, who he deems his greatest creations. Mr. McKinney is a graduate of Aurora West High School (class of 1987). He completed four semesters in Liberal Arts studies at Lincoln College between 1987 and 1989 and attended the Chicago Regional Council of Carpentry Apprentice and Training during 1997-98. He’s a graduate of North Park University (2022) where he earned a master’s degree in Christian Ministry and certificates in Transformation Justice, Restorative Arts, and Pastoral Arts. He also completed the mentorship training program provided by Highpoint Church in 2022. He is currently working towards a bachelor’s degree in the UWW program with a Depth Area in Community Healing with a focus on Compulsive Behavior Disorder. This area of focus was prompted by his own compulsive behavior and how it has not only affected him and his family, but the entire community. Also important was his experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which he witnessed the State unprepared to handle a crisis of this magnitude—especially in the carceral community which clearly impacted the mental and physical health of the incarcerated.
Mr. McKinney is a man of many hats and throughout his employment history he has held myriad positions, such as clerk, salesperson, assembler, machine operator, certified fork truck operator, and short order cook, as well as working in two different trades: carpentry and professional painting. During his incarceration he has had many job assignments but only three were conducive to his spiritual growth and educational journey. One was his assignment as a clerk at the Barber College, where he was inspired by the barber instructors’ pedagogy and the dedication and accomplishments of the barber students. It was in this space that he began to have the desire to expand his horizons, to change his own narrative and leave a positive legacy which inspires the lives of others through his own transformational experience. With his assignment as a chapel worker, he began to seize the educational opportunities offered in the carceral space, as he was encouraged by the senior chaplain and various program professors. He then began to understand the true meaning of availability, inclusiveness, leadership, and community in this space, but it was as an essential worker during the COVID crisis when he had to put those concepts into practice.
Beyond his academic accomplishments and extensive work history, Mr. McKinney is also a trauma survivor of violent encounters in his teenage years and young adult life. By not understanding trauma the biological effects it had on his body, this caused him to become drug and alcohol dependent. Eventually the unresolved trauma, drug and alcohol dependency, and a reckless lifestyle took its toll and contributed to Mr. McKinney’s incarceration. Through postsecondary educational opportunities he learned about induced trauma from adverse experiences and other various traumas which impacted him as well. He also learned about the effect trauma has on the human anatomy and holistic healing techniques.
Amidst Mr. McKinney’s educational journey, he has demonstrated resilience and tapped into his acute analytical ability. He found his voice and discovered that he was a skilled writer. Moreover, his personal transformational experience has changed the trajectory of his life. He envisions himself as a proficient holistic community healer to assist others struggling with both personal and global crises. He also aims to leave a legacy in the work of social justice and activism which challenges the status quo, in hopes of his sons building on this legacy and carrying it forward to the next generation.
Fun fact: Mr. McKinney is known for his warm smile and humorous spirit and is always laughing at everyone’s jokes.
Miguel Morales was born in Chicago on May 20, 1980, and raised in Humboldt Park and on the Northwest Side. He comes from a mixed family of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent and loves and misses them all. He was a great student in school, but early on in his youth he got a taste of the street life that he was never able to shake. Beginning his prison life at 17 stopped him from reaching his full potential. But Miguel has also learned that our decisions in life can have devastating effects on those around us and on those who love us.
While prison has been beyond challenging—he served close to a decade in isolation, while also suffering a brain tumor in 2016—he has still managed to do what he loves, which is painting. Afraid that after brain surgery and suffering from double vision he would never be able to paint again, he continued to push himself, and eventually saw that his abilities to paint were still there. He felt blessed by that alone, but in 2021 he went even further and applied for the bachelor’s degree program offered by NEIU. Lo and behold, he was accepted and given this huge opportunity.
For Miguel, getting a college degree would prove that change is possible. It would prove to him that he has actual worth and deserves a place in the world, despite the stigma out there and naysayers with the belief that there aren’t redeemable people in prison. PNAP and NEIU has taught him that there are people in the world who actually care and are willing to give men like him an opportunity to bring those talents out, to show their growth despite the difficult circumstances. He sends a world of gratitude and a huge shoutout to the entire NEIU/UWW and PNAP community for making all of this possible.
Miguel’s Depth Area is Healing through Art. He’s an artist who is great at painting and has learned that his artwork can be a powerful tool in helping people heal. Violence plagues our city and nation right now, and even if/when the violence is gone, there is trauma left for the victims and families to deal with. He hopes to address that trauma and help heal some of it through his artwork.
Michael Sullivan is a father of four and a grandfather of eight, a visual artist, and writer. He was born on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, in the early 1970s. This was a time when minorities were fighting for equal treatment under the United States Constitution. It was in those times that his teenage mother gave birth to him.
Growing up in a single parent home, Michael’s mother believed that the top priorities of raising children were: providing food, shelter, clothing, practicing religion, and schooling. At an early age his mother recognized his artistic gift and encouraged him. But without community and academic support from school, he abandoned his artistic gift. This decision set in motion a chain of events that resulted in his incarceration.
While incarcerated, Michael experienced a period when there were no academic classes with the exception of a GED class. He therefore was confined to a foreign space; it was him, a steel bunk bed, three dull gray concrete walls, and steel bars with a steel sliding door that presented the fourth wall. He stared at the four impediments that sat as opposition to his mobility. Not to be defeated, he reached for his state-issued pencil and paper and began rendering shades of gray into beautiful portraits of his loved ones. His autodidactic academic journey had begun.
Michael studied the historical and contemporary lives of artists from different walks of life: their paintings, techniques, accomplishments. He expanded his academic pursuits to math, law, science, and history. When the prison finally began offering college courses to individuals in custody, Michael jumped in headfirst, taking any and all available classes. His first class was a PNAP art history course.
Since then, Michael has obtained multiple certificates and is currently working towards earning his bachelor’s degree in Art Education and Activism through Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls program. He works hard in hopes of making his family proud of him, and to let them know he is trying to be the man he was meant to be.
Fun fact: Michael writes and draws with his right hand but does everything else with his left hand.
Johnny Taylor was born in Ripley, Tennessee, to proud parents Sandra Taylor and Big Johnny Mitchell (who everyone calls Buddy). Johnny has two older siblings. Living in Tennessee times were hard, so his family decided to pack up and move north to Chicago, in hopes of finding better employment. Because his mother and father were having difficulty feeding a family of five, Johnny remained in Tennessee and raised by his great aunt and uncle. Auntee Nora and Uncle Sidney showered him with love and support. They always impressed upon him the importance of education. They also made sure he was involved in positive after-school programs.
In 1976 Johnny’s Auntee Nora passed away. He was forced to move to Chicago to live with his now-single mother who had two additional children. She was providing for five children by herself. No one there cared about attending school. The only thing that was on anybody’s mind was survival. That is, with the exception of Johnny—the only thing he ever worried about was doing well in school. Johnny was coming from a place where he only focused on school. He let his Uncle and Auntee worry about the major issues: food, rent, clothing, etc. At the tender age of 10, Johnny switched from doing children’s things to helping provide for his family—adult things.
These adult things led him in the wrong direction. Johnny was hanging out with the wrong crowd. He started to run the streets and joined a gang of misguided youth, who were involved in illegal activities. Johnny was only doing these things to help his mother and siblings survive. Johnny was introduced to the criminal justice system. He was in and out of jail. Every time he was locked up, Johnny took advantage of their school system because he enjoyed learning.
Fast forward to today… Johnny loves to draw and has recently started to paint. Some of his art has been featured in outside exhibits and mural paintings, with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project which he is proud to call his family. PNAP has taught Johnny a lot. He is now interested in writing, including poetry. One day he hopes to become an author and write his own memoir.
Johnny is a part of PNAP’s powerful learning community. In 2019 he was on a work crew setting up the stage for the first University Without Walls nontraditional bachelor’s degree graduation ceremony. Five of Johnny’s peers and friends received a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University. This kindled a fire that has always burned inside of him. Johnny’s mother, before she passed away, made him vow to her that he would pursue an education. After witnessing those men walk across the stage in a cap and gown, it encouraged Johnny even more. So Johnny filled out a NEIU application, but the second cohort had already been accepted.
During this cohort, the world was struck by COVID-19. The PNAP community stood by their students. Students received heartfelt and encouraging letters from faculty and staff, keeping their minds strong and connected to one another. Focusing on classes via correspondence, knowing that everyone was doing okay and was continuing to be taught by PNAP, was a big part of Johnny surviving this tragic time. (Thank you, God, all praise belongs to you.) He reapplied to NEIU’s University Without Walls in the middle of the pandemic. Johnny is very proud of the fact that NEIU has selected him as a participant in their third University Without Walls cohort. He can feel his mother smiling in heaven saying, “Son you are making me proud”. R.I.P.
David Wales is a 51-year-old man, born in Austin on the Westside of Chicago. Around the age of 12 he relocated to the Northside’s Rogers Park neighborhood, which he loved and appreciated for its diversity. David was raised by the strongest, most beautiful and caring women in his life—his mother and grandmother. David was blessed, too, with an amazing sister who followed in their footsteps. He was also close to an uncle who suffered from mental health issues and passed away, and that relationship laid the foundation of who David would ultimately become.
Growing up his mother and grandmother pushed education and hard work on him. The fact that David never had a strong male role model in his life contributed to him seeking that role model by hanging out in the streets. Though he dropped out of high school and joined the street life, the hard work part stuck with him because, for the most part, David kept a job until he was incarcerated. At the age of 27 David was arrested and ultimately convicted for a crime he’s completely innocent of. 24 years later he’s still fighting for his freedom. Becoming a responsible man while incarcerated, he recognizes that his choices caused him to be in the position that led to his conviction.
He felt lost the first few years of his incarceration but knew at some point he needed to go in the opposite direction. The first thing he did was find employment. Out of the 24 years he’s been incarcerated he’s had a job for about 17 of those years. He obtained his GED and several certificates: “Impact of Crime on Victims,” “Creative Writing,” “Aim Higher,” and “Civics Education Training.” He’s also received several college-level certificates by taking classes with PNAP and Northeastern Illinois University: “Freedom and its Limits,” “American Public Schools,” “Race + Politics,” “Violence in Society,” “Black History,” “Youth + Social Movements,” “Shaped by Spaces,” “Alternative Justice Systems,” “Practicing Public Health,” and “Narrating Social Change.” David has also attended and graduated Barber College and received his certification from the Illinois Department of Public Health to be a peer health educator.
Currently David is a peer health educator and civics educator at Stateville prison. His first college credits came from DePaul University’s Restorative Justice inside-out class. All of his educational endeavors culminated in his acceptance to Northeastern Illinois University’s UWW bachelor’s degree program, where he’s currently a student in the program’s third cohort. His Depth Area is Urban Behavior Developmental Counseling. David wants to help make the world a better place and understands it starts with helping the youth who struggled like he did. He says, “This degree will put me in the best position to give back.”
Martin Luther King once remarked, “When we go into action and confront our adversaries, we must be armed with as much knowledge as they are.” So David is arming himself.
Fun fact: David is a diehard college basketball fan.
Joseph Nathaniel Ward II, also known as Ward-EL, was born in Muskegon, Michigan, the son of Joseph I and Eddie Mae Ward (deceased). His parents had five children – Alpha Sabrina (deceased), Joseph II, Jonathan, Gloria (deceased), and Robin.
Muskegon was a small town but “fast,” as city slickers sometimes remarked. Joseph received his first dose of street life at the age of 12, when he was a paperboy. Walking home he’d pass The Gambling Shack. Hustlers young and old traded their loose change for singles with him. On his paper route he delivered papers to male and female prostitutes. He knew their profession by watching movies like Willie Dynamite and The Mack. In middle school he wasn’t about to give up his lunch money, so he got into several fights. He set the record for 7th grade detentions.
Growing up he visited Chicago several times, but the summer of 1980 was different. Even though the visit wasn’t long, it made a strong impression on Joseph and Jonathan, his brother. It wasn’t the sightseeing, the White Sox, and McDonalds Rock + Roll Café, but Chicago’s South Side. Returning home, he vowed to leave Muskegon for a big city like Chicago. Joseph completed high school in ‘82 and was accepted at Morehouse College; Joseph I, his father, was Morehouse class of ‘58. While attending Morehouse Joseph was a Biology major, and he even landed his first job at the College Infirmary.
So, how does a young man with so much potential and good in his life wind up in prison? False accusations, irresponsibility, abuse, and use. Twice his parents accused him of smoking weed; both times he was innocent. At Morehouse, the Asst. Food Supervisor falsely accused him of stealing. It didn’t take long for insecurity and irresponsibility to sink in. The lack of trust was already there from his parents. “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
College life is an experience all its own. He partied, got on academic probation. Back home, Joseph ventured into the streets but nothing serious happened. Having chilled out, he was given an opportunity to go west…to be reunited with his sister, Sabrina, and her former husband, Kevin. Kevin was in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Luke AFB in Glendale, Arizona. Joseph began running with a bad crowd and quit his jobs; his bad habits got worse…he started using cocaine and gang-banging. Needless to say, his drug abuse worsened and he got locked up for taking a life.
It wasn’t until he began to accept responsibility for his actions that he ceased screwing up. To straighten out his life, he stopped abusing drugs, got into a twelve-step program, and started writing. Next was no more gang-banging. No more being a bad-ass. The first eleven years in prison he sure was. Yet, in one of his many seg bits, he saw an application to Long Ridge Writers Group of West Redding, Connecticut. He applied for it, talked to his folks about goin’ back to school. And, as the sayin’ goes…the rest is history; he graduated from Long Ridge Writers Group in 1996.
Having received a compassionate Interstate Compact Transfer due to his father being a veteran and disabled, he is currently serving out his life sentence in Illinois, with parole eligibility after serving twenty-five years. While serving time in Illinois, Joseph has completed a twelve-step program, as well as several psych classes and group therapies. He has become a published author with a novel, Three Lost Lives, and Unchained Words of Cell Block Poets, in which his poems appear. He was a 2019 finalist for Pen America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship. He has also written two plays called Second Chances and Not the Marrying Kind. Currently he is working on his second novel, Coco Meets the Sandman, and is enrolled in NEIU’s University Without Walls college program, with a Depth Area in Journalism.
*Photos of current UWW Stateville students on this page were taken by Todd Crawford during a special event with 2nd Story and outside NEIU students on September 13, 2023. Photos of Benny Rios Donjuan and Chester McKinney are coming soon. Miguel Morales was transferred to Lawrence Correctional Center in September and unfortunately will be unable to continue in the UWW program at present. Miguel made the beautiful drawing of a bird in flight that appears at the top of this page.