Here's How the MacArthur Foundation Wants to Turn Around Convicts

If you've ever visited a jail (or been incarcerated in one), you may have noticed a steady stream of crappy daytime television playing. One organization is trying to transform the role of television in our jails, and it has enlisted one of Chicago's biggest philanthropies to help out.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently made a $325,000 donation to Jail Education Solutions (JES), based in suburban Evanston, Illinois. This money is going towards the production of original video content targeted to people in jail, the development of an interactive website, and an independent evaluation of the project. (Read MacArthur Foundation: Chicago Grants).

Since JES partnered up with Chicago's Cook County, it's been transforming ordinary televisions into social mediums for positive change on the local level.“Having a structured educational component that is woven into every aspect of the jail,...[changes] the dynamics of the operations of the jail in every positive way...[with] all this learning going on around us as opposed to people just sitting around,” said Sheriff Dart at the Cook County Jail. JES hopes to expand its programming to each one of the 10 million inmates incarcerated in America each year. Now that's what I call a large, captive audience.

Are you running a nonprofit in Chicago? JES will run you promotional video in local jails so ex-inmates know whose door to knock on after they've served their time. There are plenty of charities who want to help ex-inmates get educated, get healthy, find jobs, stay motivated, and avoid legal trouble. But as you know, finding extra money around your nonprofit office is next to impossible. That's where MacArthur steps in.

MacArthur has been craving creative (an youth-centered) solutions to the city and country's jail crisis. This grant comes as part of a “new ideas” strategy in the grantmaking program of media and culture. About half of U.S. States have enacted juvenile justice reforms in the past eight years, but jail cells are still overflowing. And you'd better bet that MacArthur is involved in pushing for even more reform in the upcoming 8th Annual Models for Change National Conference.

Leading the charge is Laurie R. Garduque, the foundation's director for justice reform. She's never worked in a jail or alongside incarcerated youth, but she is an expert in educational psychology. Garduque is doing everything in her power to eliminate “life without parole” sentences for juveniles and fight efforts to lower the adult trial age. Incarcerated or not, teenagers love watching TV. Let's just hope that MacArthur's programming will actually help kids leave their life of crime behind.