College for Convicts in New Jersey

BY SYDNEY GAYDA / NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM  Image courtesy forbes.com

 The New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) is revolutionizing how inmates will integrate back into society after their release.  College-level classes, now offered to prisoners during their incarceration, are expected to offer “an invaluable boost to incarcerated students, help reduce the rates of recidivism and, cut public spending," according to NJ.com.

“First launched in 2012, the program is being expanded through a $4 million in grants Rutgers received from The Fort Foundation and The Sunshine Lady Foundation."  The program has now expanded to seven correctional facilities across the state.  At the Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility in Bordentown, NJ, a select group of young inmates are taking classes in mostly every subject- from medieval history to sculpture.  Once released, inmates are  able to redeem their credits at “Mercer County Community College, Rutgers University and several other state institutions.”

Bridget Clerkin, for The Times, reported earlier this week that results of the program have been “positively extraordinary”.  Recent research done by the Rand Corporation indicates that “inmates who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to go back to prison. And employment after release is 13 percent higher among prisoners who participated in either academic or vocational education programs."  

“My life has completely changed,” said Amarilis Rodriguez, a Camden native now living in Jersey City who was arrested on drug ossession and distribution charges at age 26 . “I am no long stifling my potential. I’m planning on applying to grad school and my biggest goal is to be able to give back to my community in some way or another.”

Studies have shown that these young inmates lacked any scholarly advantage before their incarceration.  The majority are African-American, inner-city kids who, although sometimes outperforming other college students, were never able to receive a higher education due to financial instability.  These kids are often born into dysfunctional and poverty-stricken families, where their focus was more on surviving rather than education.  So similar to other prison systems’s programs focused towards vocational training, these college-credit classes offered are meant to provide a new way of life after incarceration.

The NJ-STEP program continues to be supported by the Christie administration in partnership with the state’s departments of education and correction.

(First published by newjerseynewsroom.com; used with permission)