Sentenced to 100 years, he got college degree while in prison and now going to a prestigious law school

Dollita Okine April 22, 2024
Within four months of his freedom, he will be admitted to one of the most prominent law schools in the country, fulfilling a promise he made to himself after accepting full responsibility for his acts. Photo Credit: Monika Wnuk/Northwestern Prison Education Program

At the age of 19, Benard McKinley was sentenced to 100 years in prison at the Stateville Correctional Center in northern Illinois after being apprehended for a gang-related murder at the age of 16.

Now, only about four months after he was released, he will be admitted to one of the most prominent law schools in the country, fulfilling a promise he made to himself after accepting full responsibility for his acts.

Starting law school this fall, the 39-year-old will be a member of the Northwestern Law School class of 2027. He told ABC News, “I promised myself before I got out of that bus that no matter what the outcome was that, you know, I was just going to try to do better for myself. I knew that I wanted to better myself, and I did that.”

McKinley decided to study law after witnessing the financial strain that court expenses were causing to his family. He originally acquired his GED and paralegal diploma while incarcerated and was keen to continue his education. McKinley applied to and was accepted into the extremely competitive Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP program)—a unique chance to get a bachelor’s degree while serving a prison sentence. Of the 400 applicants in 2023, The Guardian reports that just 40 were accepted.

Representing himself in court, McKinley was able to have his sentence lowered from 100 years to 25, which he served in full. He also assisted others without access to or resources for legal representation.

He applied to law school while incarcerated, took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and was released from prison in December 2023.

In his application essay, McKinley described his experience of being incarcerated at the age of 19 and graduating from a prominent university. NPEP tutors typed out the handwritten essays, and many of them also sent letters to the law school admissions committee on McKinley’s behalf.

The former prisoner is the first Prison Education Program (PEP) alumnus to be admitted to a law school. PEP, which began in the fall of 2018, is the only program in the country that grants prisoners bachelor’s degrees from top-10 universities, according to program director Jennifer Lackey, who spoke with the network.

She explained, “I did some work with incarcerated people much earlier on in my life and, you know, became an educator and knew that providing post-secondary educational opportunities to people who were incarcerated would be a very significant way of positively intervening in the criminal legal system.”

Over 600,000 people are released from prison in the U.S. each year, but recidivism is common, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Correctional education programs like PEP, which McKinley participated in, are helping to change the situation.

McKinley is now preparing for his historic first year of study at the famous Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago between working and visits from friends and family.

“Just months ago, I was still behind prison bars, and not knowing exactly how the future of going to law school would turn out. So to be home and know I’m going to law school … is an amazing feeling,” McKinley told the Guardian.

McKinley aspires to be a civil rights lawyer and build a legal aid clinic to assist other oppressed populations.

He is now the first member of his family to attend law school, much less a university. He expressed, “It feels amazing. I’m definitely a positive role model for the future generation and my family. So you know, I have a job to do.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 22, 2024


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