William Peeples graduated from Northwestern last fall — while serving a life sentence.
William Peeples graduated from Northwestern last fall — while serving a life sentence.
Welcome to Northwestern University at Stateville

Inside this maximum security prison, a groundbreaking program offers inmates the chance to earn a degree from one of the country’s top schools. Some will never leave these walls. Here’s why it still matters.

March 26, 2024, 6:00 am

Related: “Cleaning Is Something I Can Do”

William Peeples was an invisible man. He did not know when exactly he’d come to think of himself this way. But after 27 years in prison — 13 of them on death row before his sentence was commuted — he had accepted it as true.

That’s how Peeples felt one morning in 2017 while he swept the chapel at Stateville Correctional Center. As one might expect at a state prison, it’s a chapel in name only. No stained-glass windows, no altar, no weeping Jesus gazing down from a wall-mounted crucifix. Just a few small rooms off a narrow hallway. Ring three times at the steel gate and wait for it to be unlocked, then walk past the laundry (two rings if that’s where you’re headed), with its row of churning industrial washers and dryers and its sharp tang of bleach, and into the chaplain’s office. There, the Reverend George Adamson, a somewhat eccentric presence with his long hair and penchant for motorcycles and a stint as musical director for the Platters, greets you from behind his large desk.

On this day, Peeples, push broom in hand, glanced up to see a visitor, a woman — a university professor. She was talking fast and excitedly to the chaplain, which, Peeples would later learn, is how she speaks to virtually everyone, always. Peeples had heard some inmates talking about her, about how she was a real-life Northwestern University faculty member teaching legit classes on philosophy and the law inside the prison.

Peeples was interested in taking her class, but he was nervous asking her about it. So, he was relieved when the professor, Jennifer Lackey, offered him a bright “Good morning” and extended her hand. 

“You’re the person I’ve been hearing about,” Peeples said. “The professor. I want to take your law ethics class.” 

“That’s great,” she responded. “Unfortunately, we’re already two weeks in and the class is full. Maybe the next one.”

“No,” he said. “I need to be in this one. Please.”

Lackey paused. The inmate seemed so hungry and earnest.

“OK,” she said. “What if I get you all the readings — there are six. Can you do a paper on each by the next class? It’s in one week.” 

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

“All right. Get them to me and I’ll see what I can do.”

No one in the office that day — not Lackey, or Adamson, or Peeples — had any idea what would happen in time: that Peeples would become one of Lackey’s best students and that her classes would evolve into a history-making endeavor that would ensure Peeples and all the other inmates involved were never invisible again.

The tomb-gray slabs that form the walls of Stateville, a maximum security state prison in Crest Hill, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, loom out of the flatlands like a low line of brooding storm clouds. The guard towers weep rust, and large dark blotches mar the 33-foot-high walls — a fitting reflection of the grim history that has played out behind them. The serial killer John Wayne Gacy was put to death here in 1994 by lethal injection, spared the prison’s previous method of execution: Old Sparky, the electric chair. Richard Speck, who slaughtered eight nursing students in Chicago in 1966, served his sentence here. Leopold and Loeb, the University of Chicago students who famously kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy in 1924 to try to prove they could get away with it, also did time here, as did Larry Hoover, who founded Chicago’s Gangster Disciples.

Even the architecture of the prison, which opened in 1925, is notorious. At the center of its labyrinthine campus stands F House, a circular building where hundreds of inmates once lived in cells stacked around a tower from which a single guard could peer into each one. This panopticon model was adopted in numerous prisons for its efficiency, but all such buildings in the United States, including Stateville’s, were eventually shuttered after criticism that the design created “insufferable noise-levels; extreme temperatures and poor ventilation,” in the words of the John Howard Association, an Illinois organization dedicated to criminal justice reform.

One Wednesday morning last November, eight days before Thanksgiving, the ghosts and gloom of the old prison were temporarily chased away, supplanted by an air of something as rare as silence in a cellblock: celebration. In the prison’s auditorium, 16 inmates in full graduation regalia, tassels swinging from their mortarboards, took their seats among family members and the media, the first graduating class of the Northwestern Prison Education Program and the first students in history to earn a bachelor’s from a top 10 American university while behind bars.

They listened as the commencement speaker, celebrated author Ta-Nehisi Coates, praised their achievement and shared his sense of connection with them. “When I got the invitation to come here to address you, wild horses couldn’t stop me,” he said, “because I’m addressing myself.” The graduates, including William Peeples, strode across the stage in turn, shook hands with Lackey and Coates, and took their diplomas in hand.

It was a scene that could have taken place on Evanston’s leafy campus. Except for the reminders that it wasn’t. Watching from every corner, at every door, from perches on each side of the stage, and from a balcony at the rear of the auditorium were armed guards, some chewing gum, some wearing sunglasses. And after the ceremony, when the cameras had left and the families had been escorted back outside, the inmates were aggressively searched and had their cells tossed. 

Jennifer Lackey, founding director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program
Jennifer Lackey, founding director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program

I visited Stateville in early January to sit in on a Northwestern class. When I arrived at the visitors’ entrance, a clean but drab room with fluorescent lights and a long list of rules posted in English and Spanish, I spotted Lackey, who would be leading me in. She was unmistakable — there or anywhere. A 5-foot-5 bundle of energy, earnestness, and fierceness, the 51-year-old professor is a hurricane blowing through the university and the prison. Between the prison program and her full-time job teaching philosophy to undergrads in Evanston, 80-hour workweeks are not unheard of for her. On this day, she was coordinating movements like a field marshal mounting a charge, chatting easily with an intake sergeant, helping a group of students and teaching assistants get signed in, greeting the professors, and making sure everyone’s papers and assignments were tucked into plastic bags as required.

After being searched, we were led by guards down a sidewalk to the prison entrance. One after another, steel gates banged shut behind us as we passed several checkpoints under the tight gaze of correctional officers. At each gate, their shouted instructions echoed down the sterile, polished-concrete hallways. We emerged through a solid steel door into the squintingly bright sunlight and walked across the prison yard, where a number of inmates who had been exercising stopped to watch us pass.

Entering the education building, we were shown to the program’s main classroom, aptly called the Purple Room. Its doorway, painted Wildcat purple, is a singular splash of color in the industrial gray hallway. The school’s color also accents a long iron girder overhead, the trim of the classroom’s interior windows, and the lower half of one of its walls. The Northwestern Prison Education Program seal is prominently stenciled on another.

Lackey launched the program in 2018, three years after starting to teach at Stateville and three years before the endeavor would be given degree-granting status. Originally, the students were meant to live together in a single college-dorm-like cell house, but a roof collapse prevented that from happening, leaving them scattered in different locations. The Purple Room was soon created, upgraded from a room that had previously been unusable, a de facto trash dump condemned by wall-climbing mold.

The lighting is poor. Cardboard boxes propped on laps serve as writing desks. Traditional pens are forbidden because the hard plastic can be fashioned into shivs.

By ones and twos, the student inmates — dressed in powder blue prison shirts and navy blue prison pants and sporting wool hats or kufi caps, beards, braids, tattoo sleeves, and neck tattoos that seemed incongruous with the reading glasses many wore — drifted in beneath a set of pipes that rattled like a bucket boy banging out a solo on a downtown street corner.

At just past the hour, the professor arrived. Slightly rumpled in a maroon sweater and chinos, his dark beard fighting to hold off an encroachment of silver, David Smith is a Mr. Chips stereotype. He teaches Statistical Methods of Psychology, which, he is well aware, isn’t a favorite subject of most of his student inmates, who tend to prefer explorations of philosophy and sociology to the cold language of binomial distributions and standard deviations. So, to grab the class’s attention, he employs sports analogies.

That day, he introduced one statistical method as a means of settling a timeless argument: Who was better, Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Smith guided the class through the formula, with inmates peppering him with a range of questions, some on point, others not so much: “Can you do that last part again?” “Is that the same thing as the P values?” “Have you taught Jeff Bezos’s daughter? I heard she’s at Northwestern.”

The discussion culminated in a genuine eureka moment. “Yes!” an inmate named Miguelangel Garcia shouted, grinning. “You’ve just given me a way to prove Michael Jordan is the best of all time.”

It was Lackey’s goal for the Purple Room to mimic other Northwestern classrooms as closely as possible, important enough to her to spend grant money acquiring the same desks as those on the Evanston campus. Likewise, course offerings are many and varied — psychology, chemistry, journalism, statistics, sociology, physics, legal writing and advocacy, philosophy (Philosophy of Punishment and Incarceration is a favorite), archaeology, documentary filmmaking, and dozens of others.

The logistics of creating and maintaining a program like this would be daunting in any off-campus setting, but a place like Stateville adds layers of complexity. The syllabuses for all classes must be approved by prison officials. Ditto all textbooks, which also must be physically checked by the prison staff before being handed out to students. That’s quite an undertaking in a program with around 100 inmates enrolled — roughly 80 at Stateville and 20 at Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison about 30 miles northeast of Springfield. The students, divided into groups of about 20, take three classes a week, each class lasting three hours, and have one day of study hall. With four such groupings at Stateville, that’s 12 classes a week.

It’s a far cry from the early days. The renowned author Alex Kotlowitz, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, has been teaching at Stateville since 2019. He recalls the conditions back then, when teaching was the easy part: “I had 10 incarcerated students and 10 undergrads from Medill. And we would all carpool down once a week, and they would lock us in a room [over the prison gym].” 

As hard as Lackey has worked to create a setting in Stateville that mirrors Northwestern, one need merely hear the voices that bounce off the cinder blocks of the hallway outside the Purple Room like screams in a metal garbage can to start to grasp the differences. Here, there are no faculty office hours available to inmates. “They can’t even drop a professor a quick email,” Lackey says. “They can’t follow up on something. They can’t look something up online.” 

Justified or not, the living situation is so oppressive, so filled with distractions and hurdles, both psychological and physical, that, to Lackey, it’s a wonder students can read full passages from textbooks, much less produce thoughtful essays — all handwritten — on the application of the philosophies of Kant and Socrates to life in the housing projects. The cells are so small that “if two men are standing up at the same time, they’re quite literally bumping into each other,” says Lackey, who has visited the cell house more than once. 

The lighting is poor. Cardboard boxes propped on laps serve as writing desks. Traditional pens are forbidden because the hard plastic can be fashioned into shivs. Instead, inmates must use the bendy plastic inserts as their sole writing instruments. “I’m younger than many of the students, and I feel like it would give my hand arthritis,” Lackey says.

The biggest challenge, however, is the noise — the relentless, jarring din of the cellblock. “Noise, noise, noise,” Lackey says. “If one person in the cell house wants to blast rap music, and you’re trying to do homework — I mean, one time we asked if we could donate earplugs, and they said no. I was at Stateville recently and saw one of the students and said, ‘You look so exhausted.’ He said, ‘It’s the noise. I just can never sleep for more than a couple of hours.’ ” At one point, one of the students was trying to do schoolwork while his cellmate, who had been smoking ketamine all day, was having a psychotic breakdown. And then there are the periodic visits from the Orange Crush, the prison’s tactical team, which tosses cells, looking for contraband. Textbooks and assignments have been known to get trashed in the process.

“It’s not an easy place to visit,” echoes Kotlowitz. “Physically, I think, it’s the most depressing place I’ve ever been. The prison’s a hundred years old, it’s literally falling apart. The guys can’t even drink the water there. They get, I think, 23 bottles of water a week, and they went six months without hot water a couple of years ago.”

Overcoming such obstacles is a semimiraculous feat in Lackey’s view: “Getting a college degree is hard. Getting a college degree from Northwestern is very hard. And getting a college degree from Northwestern University while you’re incarcerated at a place like Stateville Correctional Center is nothing short of heroic.”

The letter, neatly penned on yellow Care Bears stationery, was addressed to the warden of Cook County Jail. Its author, an 11-year-old girl, wondered if she might satisfy her Catholic school service requirement by doing volunteer work with some of the inmates.

It seemed an absurd request. Allow a young girl to mingle with prisoners? Then again, the sheriff at the time, Richard Elrod, knew the value of feel-good publicity.

And so it was, one day in the fall of 1984, that a squad car pulled up in front of Jennifer Lackey’s school in the west suburbs. To the astonishment of her classmates and teachers, the seventh grader climbed in and was soon on her way to 26th and California. A photo in the newspaper captured the moment: Lackey, dressed in a white short-sleeved blouse with her dark hair pulled back, flanked on one side by Elrod and on the other by four female inmates, beaming for the camera while holding a tray of cookies that Lackey and her mother had stayed up most of the night baking.

While her schoolmates chose activities like babysitting and volunteering in retirement homes to satisfy their service requirements, Lackey felt drawn to what at the time was a radical idea: that inmates were as deserving of compassion and humanity as anyone else. “I remember having a conversation with my mother,” she says. “I don’t know exactly how I put it then, but the feeling was that criminal activity is often attributed to people entirely as arising from agency — that you did this, and you deserve [jail]. And I felt back then, as I still do now, that there are many kinds of social influences at play in how people end up incarcerated.”

Her face-to-face meetings with the inmates only confirmed such feelings for her. “I remember one woman was crying and hugged me and gave me a flower made out of tissue. I still have that in my little box of childhood memories. I think that for many of them, it felt very comforting to be with a child when so many of them were separated from their own. It obviously had a very profound impact on me.”

Lackey visited Cook County Jail when she was 11. “It obviously had a very profound impact on me,” she says. Photograph: courtesy of Jennifer Lackey

As formative as her visits were, Lackey did not envision herself working with inmates as a career. Her mother, Lackey’s hero and guiding force, worked a series of office jobs to support her daughter and two older children as a single parent, and to her, there was no greater pursuit than a career in education.

Her mother didn’t just preach the value of learning. “When I was 3 or 4, she started taking night classes,” recalls Lackey. “And this is, I think, another part of the connection to the work that I do, because my mom really felt that education is empowering. She didn’t have a college degree when she had us, but she went back to school and would have us in the cafeteria studying, give us coloring books and stuff. She would take her classes and come home and be cooking in the kitchen and telling us about literature and psychology. I remember her literally walking me through chapters of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Eventually, Lackey’s mother earned a bachelor’s from Concordia University in River Forest.

Lackey received her doctorate in philosophy from Brown in 2000 and began teaching at Pomona College, an elite liberal arts school in California. After a stint at Northern Illinois, she joined the faculty of Northwestern in 2007. In 2015, she started teaching a single philosophy class at Stateville, having gotten the prison to agree to it. “I was doing it on my own, with no credit, just a certificate, a very informal thing,” she explains. But she had bigger ambitions. She soon drafted a proposal to Northwestern for a degree program “with the same content and the same expectations as I had with my on-campus classes.”

An undercurrent of resentment from some of the guards and staff members at Stateville ripples through the prison. Students have been subjected to strip searches that they feel go beyond routine security measures.

She laid out specifics, like target enrollment and a timeline, but to mount such a program would take an enormous buy-in from the university. And that proved to be no easy sell. “It’s not something that was really familiar to an institution like Northwestern,” Lackey says. The first provost she approached, she says, “needed to be persuaded about how this work fit with the university’s mission.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was the lack of precedent. No top-tier university had ever offered anything remotely like what Lackey had in mind. Offering education programs in prison was one thing. Handing out a four-year degree from one of the best universities in the country was quite another. 

Lackey knew she would need money. For that, she applied for and was awarded a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, a giant in higher education philanthropy. Though the foundation administrators initially had concerns over the extent of Northwestern’s involvement with the program, Lackey says, they eventually agreed to fund it. “They were tired of certificate programs for incarcerated people, where universities receive credit for having prison education programs but without putting their names behind degrees.”

She still needed to persuade Northwestern, though. A new provost, Jonathan Holloway, had said he would allow credits to be granted and tuition waived for such a program, but stopped short of agreeing to grant a degree. Lackey continued to fight. “My personality is a little bit like a bulldozer,” she says. “I just don’t let things go.”

When Holloway left to take over as president of Rutgers in 2020, Lackey and a colleague peppered the inbox of the interim provost, Kathleen Hagerty, asking for updates on the request. Hagerty had been working to secure funding that could sustain the program beyond the Mellon grants, but Lackey was sending so many emails that the provost finally asked for some patience. “I remember I was walking into the grocery store and she called me,” Lackey recalls. Hagerty said she was working on it. “I’m about two weeks out from getting to a place where I’m comfortable with all of this.”

Finally, in 2021, Northwestern agreed to offer a four-year degree to inmates who completed the program — at no cost to them. Lackey was vacationing with her husband’s family in Corrales, New Mexico, when she received word via a Zoom call. “I was sitting at the kitchen table in this Southwestern-style house,” she recalls. “It was that vivid, just an absolutely incredible moment. I have written books and won awards, but this was the most emotional moment of my whole career.”

The real work was just beginning. There were issues to iron out. “It was like, What is the students’ major going to be, and what school is going to confer it, and who’s on board? And what happens when the students are released and they haven’t finished?” Lackey recalls. “We met weekly — and I mean every single week — for an hour to hammer out all these details.” It would take a full year before everything was worked out. But with Lackey fueling the program, there was no doubt it would come together.

“She’s kind of a fast talker, a lot of this kind of high energy,” says Kotlowitz, the professor and author. “But here’s the thing. She has an incredibly generous spirit, one of the most generous people I know. And I don’t mean that in that she gives, but in her ability to build these individual connections with these guys. I remember going into that prison early on, and one of the things that I just was astonished by — she not only had the respect and admiration of the students, but she also had the respect and admiration of the corrections officers.”

William Peeples takes a seat across from me in a large corner room in the education building. Sun floods through the glass block windows. Clusters of student inmates chat at nearby tables as one sets up a video on a large-screen television on a rolling stand. Lackey had introduced Peeples to me earlier in the day, saying she wanted me to talk to one of her best students — not just at Stateville, but anywhere. 

Peeples, in keeping with his Muslim faith, wears a white kufi cap and a neatly trimmed chin beard — mostly white save for a stripe of iron gray. With his gray-framed glasses and placid manner, Peeples, now 60, looks the part of an earnest, if older, student. He drops his head and shakes it gently when I ask him to recount his journey from death row inmate to Northwestern graduate. 

Peeples was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes, the public housing high-rises on South State Street that were torn down in the early 2000s. By age 11, Peeples was drinking wine and smoking weed. By his early teens, he had joined the Black Gangster Disciples and dropped out of high school. 

On May 18, 1988, according to trial evidence, Peeples, who was living in Schaumburg, stabbed a neighbor at his apartment complex 39 times in the process of robbing her for drug money, killing her, then set fire to her apartment to try to cover up the crime. The victim, Dawn Dudovick, had opened the door to Peeples to lend him a cup of sugar. The Chicago Tribune reported that Peeples had shown no remorse during the jury trial and “stared defiantly” at Judge Brendan McCooey as he sentenced him to death.

In his first years in prison, at Menard Correctional Center, Peeples remained violent, attacking a guard and other inmates. It was in 1994, he says, after someone brought him a tape of a Louis Farrakhan sermon, that he began what he calls his “transition.” Peeples eventually disavowed the controversial Nation of Islam leader and became an orthodox Muslim. Over the years, as he grew more devout, he also became a voracious reader, studying the dictionary and devouring books by authors such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright. 

In 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of all those on death row, and Peeples was transferred to Stateville, where he is now serving a life term.

After joining Lackey’s class in 2018 and taking as many additional courses as the prison would allow, Peeples wasn’t sure what would come next for him. That’s when Lackey presented a new opportunity. “Just as class was about to wrap up, she comes in with this stack of papers,” he recalls. “She was like, ‘These are applications for Northwestern’s degree program.’ I was like, ‘The what?’ ” Lackey explained that she was rolling out a full program and working hard to get Northwestern to grant a bachelor’s to inmates who completed it. She thought Peeples would be an ideal candidate. 

“I was a little intimidated,” Peeples says. “You’ve heard of impostor syndrome?” He had thrived in Lackey’s class, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready for a full-time course load. He took the application as much to humor Lackey as anything. 

Before the professor left, she gave Peeples a parting word. “It was almost like this woman read my mind,” he recalls. “When I went to turn away, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘You can do this — if you want it.’ ”

Later that day, he returned to his cell and filled out the application. “I wrote probably the best, most heartfelt essays of my life about why I should be in the program.” He described the events that brought him to death row:  How he grew up in public housing and was physically abused as a child. How he was drawn into gang life and became a thief and murderer to fuel a deepening drug habit. And how his conversion to Islam and the courses he’d taken in prison had reframed his view of himself and led him to search for ways to atone for what he’d done, an act that haunted him still.

“I’m a grandfather,” Peeples tells me. “My victim will never be a grandparent because I took her life.” Whatever he has been able to achieve academically, he says, he has done to honor not only family members who stood by him but also the victim’s memory. 

One thing Lackey may not have anticipated: Not everyone would share her excitement about a major university granting inmates degrees. An undercurrent of resentment from some of the guards and staff members at Stateville ripples through the prison. Students have been subjected to strip searches that they feel go beyond routine security measures. Some days, guards arrive late to take students from their cells to the education building, making them tardy for class. As those inmates are escorted across the prison grounds, they are met with rolled eyes, smirks, and under-the-breath snipes from certain corrections officers.

On some level, the discontentment is understandable. These are convicted criminals, after all — many of them murderers. The guards have led lives that have kept them on the other side of the bars. No one is offering them a free-ride education from Northwestern.

“We so often think about these guys as some ‘others,’ as monsters, as people who are evil,” says professor Alex Kotlowitz. “And yet, they are more than that. They’re who we are. They’re us.”

Why do inmates deserve special opportunities? Even Kotlowitz, who has written with empathy and compassion about poverty and perversions of justice, “kind of bumbled” his response to that question during an interview with the New Yorker editor David Remnick, he says. His answer today comes down to a question of humanity: “Look, they are a part of us. We so often think about these guys as some ‘others,’ as monsters, as people who are evil. And yet, they are more than that. They’re who we are. They’re us. They’ve made mistakes and they’ve shown remorse and asked for forgiveness both of themselves and others.”

He continues: “We’ve got, what, two million now behind bars, and they’re disproportionately Black and brown people. And if we’re going to restore a sense of equity or equanimity to how we deal with people who have committed crimes, then we’ve got to include them in our community. I’m always reminded of Studs Terkel, who I was fortunate to count as a dear friend and mentor. He had this line — and I’m paraphrasing — that if the community isn’t doing all right, then neither am I. The challenge for us is to imagine these men and women as part of our community. If they’re not doing all right, neither am I. On that basis, it seems to me perfectly reasonable and fair that we provide them with an education, even a great education.”

On one of my visits, I met with Charles Truitt, who took over as Stateville’s warden less than two years ago, after the program was already underway. He favors such a progressive stance toward prison education, heaping praise on Lackey and the Northwestern program and calling the graduation ceremony “monumental history” and “probably the pinnacle to my career.” He treads carefully, though, when asked about the resentment, even hostility, from guards that had been described to me. 

Stateville warden Charles Truitt
Stateville warden Charles Truitt

Most of the complaints he’s heard about the program, Truitt insists, come from people outside the prison walls — perhaps from those wary of reading stories celebrating the student inmates. “As far as my staff, that has never gotten back to me that this is an unacceptable practice here.” Still, the former guard hints at disgruntlement. “I would not say it was easy for me to get my staff to understand, but they also understand that I worked this facility three decades ago. I turned keys like they did.”

The critical factor in getting guards on board, he says, has been explaining to them the benefits to the Stateville operations. “When you look at the security piece of putting these programs into place, you realize they give the student a sense of worth,” he says. “And the more we give them to do, the more things to help them work on themselves,” the fewer problems the prison has managing them.

The graduation ceremony, at which the inmates were allowed to freely interact with friends and family and professors and the media, posed a particular challenge for the guards, in terms of not just ensuring security and safety but also forcing themselves to stand back and not interfere with an unabashed moment of jubilation from men they had been accustomed to controlling. Says Truitt: “To say that I was nervous — nervous every second — is an understatement.”

On that Wednesday morning in November, 16 students wearing purple robes over white prison-issue sneakers gathered in the Stateville auditorium. On the stage were Northwestern professors and various dignitaries. Among those inmates who were given a chance to speak to the crowd of some 200 that day was William Peeples.

He gripped the sides of the lectern, letting the waves of applause wash over him as he scanned the audience, glancing from side to side before finally sighing softly and pulling the microphone down and close. “Family, friends, and loved ones,” he began, his voice breaking slightly. “This moment is literally the culmination of 30 years of people pouring into me.” When he first arrived in prison, he had been defined by “drugs, violence, ignorance to the max,” he told the group, chopping the air with each of his words. “And instead of judging and condemning me, [the people in the Northwestern program] loved me.”

He talked about the woman he had met six years earlier, while sweeping the prison chapel, feeling invisible. She had made him feel seen. “I won’t bore you with the story. But what I will say is that there have been very few times in my life where a stranger had made me feel as accepted and valued as that woman there.” He pointed to Lackey. “If we had more people like her, these places would not be necessary.”

When it came Lackey’s turn to speak, her eyes were shining with tears. “I am in awe of and humbled by each of you,” she said to the graduates. “You have radically expanded what it means to be a Northwestern student, and you have enriched Northwestern University in ways that will echo for decades to come.”

Afterward, graduate Michael Broadway approached Lackey onstage. The two hugged briefly, and Broadway, whose mother was in the audience, swept his arm out as if to say to Lackey, Look at this. “Is this everything you envisioned?” he asked her.

“We both laughed really hard,” Lackey recalls. “Because the answer was definitely no. It was so beyond anything I could ever have imagined.”

A bittersweet feeling hung in the air after the ceremony. Outside the prison auditorium, the graduates posed for group photos, beaming and laughing, shouting at Lackey to stand in the center. On a photographer’s count, they flung their mortarboards skyward, and then the student inmates and their professors exchanged one last round of hugs. One of the shots was included in Reuters’s weekly selection of the best news photos from around the world.

Peeples has applied for clemency and is awaiting a ruling. In the meantime, he has been hired by the Northwestern program as a teaching fellow for a biology course being taught by a physician from the university’s medical school. He may never get out of prison, may never be able to apply his degree outside these walls. But in a broader sense, he sees this achievement as another step on a path toward personal redemption. Guiding him, he says, is a central question: “What am I doing substantively to make the world, and even this environment in here, a better place?”

The ceremony over, he and the other students took off their purple gowns, returning to their prison blues. The guards, barking a little louder than usual, lined the men up and began walking them back to their cells, back into the gray.