Professor Jennifer Lackey with NPEP students at the Epistemic Reparations and Carceral Injustice Conference. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lackey

When Professor Jennifer Lackey was just 11 years old, she chose to volunteer with incarcerated people as part of her class’ community engagement work. She wrote to the warden of Cook County Jail, asking permission to visit and volunteer with the incarcerated women there, and got it.

Decades later, she returned to working with incarcerated communities. Now, her work as the founding director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) has made history, with NPEP graduating its inaugural class in November 2023, the first incarcerated students to receive their degrees from a top 10 university.

Lackey graduated from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and went on to get a master’s degree at the University of Chicago, studying philosophy in both her undergraduate and graduate careers.  After earning her Ph.D. in philosophy from Brown, Lackey taught at Pomona College and Northern Illinois University before arriving at Northwestern in 2007. She specializes in epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and is especially interested in applied epistemology. Last year, she published a book on extracted testimony in the criminal legal system.

“I looked at all these different ways in the criminal legal system where what people say is not through the exercise of their own agency or autonomy. It's because of various either coercive tactics or coercive systems or manipulative policies or laws,” she said.

With two kids and a tenure-track job, Lackey said she spent the first 10 years of her career focusing on raising her children, publishing and teaching. Eventually, she knew that she wanted to return to working with incarcerated people.

“If I weren't directing the Northwestern Prison Education Program right now, I don't think being a professor would be quite enough for me,” Lackey said.  “I have to be engaged in the world. And I have to be engaged with people who are experiencing injustice.”

NPEP works with incarcerated students in Stateville Correctional Center, Logan Correctional Center, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the Cook County Department of Corrections.

Current NPEP intern Joy Zhao (Weinberg ‘23) first met Lackey when she took her class The Philosophy of Punishment and Incarceration in Winter 2023. Lackey took ten students down to Stateville each week to teach the class jointly to incarcerated NPEP students.

“A collective thing that came to mind was how she’s an incredibly hard-working and busy person. I feel like she does what eight people do on a daily basis,” Zhao said. “She really prioritizes incorporating the voices and perspectives of people who have been directly impacted by the justice system.”

Participants of the Epistemic Reparations and Carceral Injustice Conference. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lackey

Lackey also co-leads the Epistemic Reparations Global Working Group, which is supported by the Buffet Institute. Former NPEP students Benard McKinley and James Soto now both work as research assistants for the project.

Earlier this month, the group hosted the three-day Epistemic Reparations and Carceral Injustice Conference, spending one day at Stateville Correctional Center, one day at the Pritzker School of Law and the last at the Evanston campus. Faculty participants flew in from all over the country and from countries including South Africa and Canada. The conference also featured a panel of formerly incarcerated students, an original song by a current NPEP student, as well as an art exhibition by NPEP student artists.

In terms of teaching, Lackey said that NPEP has made her more aware of the importance of flexibility, noting how educators often exercise a blanket policy for all students.

“I think that the Stateville students and the Logan students have just taught me so much about navigating the world with care, love and courage,” she said. “It has made me a lot more forgiving and patient and understanding of all the people in my life.”

Lackey reflected on her journey from individually volunteering at Stateville and Logan on her own time to expanding into a degree-granting program. Having the right people in positions of authority and influence at the right time, she noted, made all the difference in the world.

“Right now, we have a provost who is extremely supportive of NPEP and who really takes seriously Northwestern’s commitment to expanding what it means to be a Northwestern student,” Lackey said. In 2021, Provost Kathleen Hagerty approved a petition for NPEP to become a degree-granting program.

NPEP Deputy Director Michelle Paulsen describes Lackey as having “the tenacity of a bulldog.”

“When it comes to providing opportunities and advancement for the NPEP students, she doesn’t take no for an answer. She finds a way around every barrier that any person or organization puts in front of her,” Paulsen said.

NPEP now receives hundreds of applications every year for 20 spots in its upcoming cohort. It’s difficult for Professor Lackey to balance the intense demand for NPEP, the limited spots in the program and the tight-knit community that defines the program. Although it would be her dream to provide for every incarcerated person in the state of Illinois who is ready for and wants to do college level work, she recognizes that the size of NPEP plays a key part in its success.

This also places a sense of responsibility onto released NPEP students, who understand that their choices reflect on a community.

“One of the things that makes us so unique is how community-based we are. And by that, I mean I know every student,” Lackey said. “I know their strengths. I know their challenges. I know who they get along with and who they don't get along with in the community. And so much of that sense of us just being present for one another is what makes us so successful.”