After Graduating College While in Prison for 22 Years, Benard McKinley is About to Start Law School at Northwestern

Like many future law school students, Benard McKinley is preparing for the rigorous program while working as a paralegal.  

“I’m psychologically preparing myself for the first year of law school, which I’m told will be the most stressful,” said McKinley, who works with Northwestern University law professor and attorney Sheila Bedi.

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But Benard’s path toward becoming a lawyer is quite different from most of his classmates.

“So, to sit here and know that all the hard work I put in has finally come about, I can see my success,” he said.

When he was 19 years old, McKinley was sentenced to 100 years in prison for a crime that he committed when he was 16.

WTTW News first spoke with McKinley when he was a student in the Northwestern Prison Education Program, or NPEP, at Stateville Correctional Center outside Chicago.

We’d see him again when he graduated with his cohort — the first group of people in prison in the country to graduate with a degree from a top 10 university — in the fall of 2023.

Bedi was one of the professors on stage. 

“Even among the extraordinary students Benard stood out, for his quiet leadership, for his understanding of the law and the rigor with which he approaches the law,” Bedi said.

It was his experience behind bars that sparked his interest in a legal career.

“When I first got my paralegal diploma I was happy to use it and exercise the knowledge that I gained from it,” he said. “But as time went on and I saw different problems going on inside prison, as far as different inhumane violations being committed, it made me look into the law to see how the law could help remedy those situations.”

He then learned how to write grievances the proper way that would allow procedural hurdles to be bypassed once they made their way to federal court. 

He also successfully argued to reduce his own 100-year sentence down to 25 years.

“Miller v. Alabama came out in 2012, and in that decision they held that children were constitutionally different than adults,” he explained. “That allowed me to challenge my sentence given that the crime that I committed and I take full accountability for happened when I was 16 years old. And it allowed me to go back to judge, for the judge to re-weigh certain mitigating factors of my youth.”

He was released from Stateville in late 2023 after serving more than 22 years.

A few months later, McKinley learned he was accepted to his top choice for law school: Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law.

“I knew when Benard told me years ago in 2017 that he was going to be a civil rights lawyer, I knew that would happen,” Bedi said. “I knew that it would happen, I just didn’t know that it would happen so soon.”

And in late April, he was released from transitional housing as part of his mandatory supervised release — removing one last barrier for that tough first year of law school.

“Being able to have a study group with some of my classmates [at] late hours of the night, or being able to go into the Northwestern database to research case law that I might need to take from what I hear are very stressful exams” will all be easier without the constrictions of the halfway house, he said.

“Law school is tough for anyone. Law school is particularly tough for Black and Brown students who are first gen, and compounding that with Benard’s life experience, it's not gonna be easy,” Bedi says. “And Benard has overcome so much. And Benard can tell stories of having to study the law and forego food because he’s using commissary funds to buy legal books because he’s so focused and determined. I know he can do it. I also know there’s gonna be challenges.”

Bedi believes Benard has already shown he can rise to those challenges. After law school, he plans to start a nonprofit civil rights clinic to help others.

“It’s no question that I’ve done some things that have been negative to the community and being able to come home and start that nonprofit and give back to the community is the least I can do,” he said. “And that is my first goal.” 

Because Benard is on parole and mandatory supervised release, he still reports to a parole officer every two months. 

But he says he now has a driver’s license, is looking to find his own apartment near the law school and is “living my best life.” 

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