Prison Project

Prison Project worked with women incarcerated at the Dwight Correctional Center. They taught learning skills, helped prisoners with legal research and organized advocacy on the outside. Eventually, their work at the prison helped establish child visitation rights for incarcerated mothers.
by Chicago Herstory Website Editorial Committee

Prison Project went to Dwight Prison in central Illinois every Saturday for five years to teach classes and work to improve prison conditions. When Prison Project began its work, there had been strikes and revolts at a number of America's prisons, often leading to death and injury. These revolts were met by a combination of savage repression and grudging reform. Most of these revolts had taken place at men's facilities and change was slow to come to women's prisons.

When Prison Project first came to Dwight the women prisoners had only a Beauty School as their job training. Educational programs were limited. Healthcare was poor, with women getting very little information about their physical condition, about the treatments they were receiving or about the medication that was prescribed to them. There was no gynecologist available except in cases of extreme emergency.

Incarcerated mothers were not permitted to visit with their children, which caused great personal and family hardship. The state agencies responsible for the children of incarcerated mothers did not provide decent care and often provided little information to the mothers.

Racism was a serious problem at the prison. Most inmates were Black or Latin and the staff tended to treat the white inmates marginally better. There were no programs for racial and cultural minorities.

To deal with the brutal conditions at Dwight, Prison Project taught classes in health and law. The Project also organized the Dwight Task Force to link up reform minded politicians, community groups and revolutionary organizations to do prison advocacy work.

As a result of their efforts, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Illinois Department of Corrections finally created a space for women within the institution that included a nursery room which was much more conducive to interaction between the women and their children.

Prison Project's work in defending the rights of prisoners inevitably came into conflict with the Dwight administration and the group was eventually banned from the prison.