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NJ-STEP Changing Lives Behind Bars: Q&A with Provost Todd Clear

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Gov. Chris Christie discusses NJ-STEP during a press conference at Mercer County College.

George Washington Carver said, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door to freedom.” In prison, freedom is an elusive luxury and prisoners’ lives are often defined by deprivation and restraint. But for hundreds of people incarcerated in New Jersey’s prisons, Carver’s words ring true, as these inmates take college courses to change their narratives and set the stage for brighter futures upon their release. These people behind bars are students in the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison Consortium (NJ-STEP), a network of colleges that provides higher education courses to eligible inmates, along with support and guidance to facilitate future transitions into higher education institutions.

Todd Clear, provost of Rutgers University–Newark and former dean of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, sat down to give greater insight into NJ-STEP and discuss how it is transforming New Jersey’s prison system.

 

What led to the creation of NJ-STEP?

The New Jersey prison system was already offering classes in an ad hoc fashion, but the colleges offering courses were doing that separately. About two years ago, the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice hosted a meeting of the various schools that were involved in this, and we formed a consortium in which we combined our courses together into a single operating entity. We called that entity NJ-STEP.

Similar programs have been criticized by some politicians and taxpayers who think inmates shouldn’t receive a college education at a significantly reduced cost. How has this program generally been received in New Jersey?

Well the governor loves it. He had a press conference in which he fully endorsed the work we were doing. I understand why people might feel funny about this, people who are incarcerated have committed crimes and they are being punished for those crimes, so why should they receive this benefit? That said, an investment in college courses for people who are incarcerated is a net positive, indeed a money maker, for the state of New Jersey.

The research shows that people who attend college while incarcerated have almost half the recidivism rate of people who don’t. You just save money on corrections costs alone by offering these courses. Nobody in New Jersey is paying anything for these courses since, in fact, courses are being paid for primarily by private funding sources. It’s a net benefit for the citizens.

That said, we here at Rutgers University–Newark are strongly committed to making college affordable for everyone who meets our admission requirements. We work to provide all of our students with access to an affordable education, regardless of their backgrounds.

How is this program funded?

A small portion of [inmates’] earnings go toward tuition. We also have large grants from two funding agencies, the Sunshine Lady Foundation and the Ford Foundation, to cover the administrative cost of the work.

What incentivizes these foundations to provide support?

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and incarcerates the largest percentage of its population compared to other developed countries. For every 100,000 people in our country, 500 are incarcerated. People have been concerned that this large prison population regenerates itself because of recidivism rates. It’s also intergenerational because having a parent go to prison increases the chances of that child going to prison. In neighborhoods where large numbers of people, like some neighborhoods in Newark and other cities, have spent time in prison, the economic and social infrastructure of the entire neighborhood is affected. Charitable foundations understand that this is a problem that needs to be addressed in U.S. politics and one of the very best ways to address it is to provide an opportunity for people who are behind bars to be able to succeed once they’re released. There is literally no better program, not drug treatment, not anger management, not counseling, literally no better program than simply providing college courses for people who are eligible for college.

Is there continued assistance for inmates who attend two-year or four-year colleges after NJ-STEP?

Rutgers University has a nationally renowned program called Mountainview that provides a community of support for Rutgers students who come from the New Jersey prison system. The success rates of Mountainview students are higher than their peers. The grade point average is higher, and the disciplinary rate is lower, so Mountainview is a support group that helps students who have criminal histories succeed on their college campuses.

Essex County College has a program called Next Step which we are affiliated with here at Rutgers University–Newark, and students involved with Next Step have a higher success rate at Essex County College than the other students that enter with them. So yes, we provide support. We don’t just drop them cold into the community; we bring them in the support system, just like we would other students. If we accept you to this college, Rutgers University–Newark, we will provide the kind of support that you need in order to succeed here.

Once they get their college degree, they are alumni of this university just like everybody else. We follow their success stories and we hope to bring them back and engage them in this work on campus, and we do. Some of our NJ-STEP graduates go back into prisons to provide tutoring and mentoring for students who are taking courses while they’re incarcerated.

What are your goals for NJ-STEP?

We want to do two things. We want to make college courses available to every person who’s incarcerated in New Jersey, who is eligible to take courses and wants to take them. We think that if we do that we will be running a large and important college education system in New Jersey’s prisons.

The second thing we want to do is to serve as a model for the nation. The arrangement we’ve done here which involves a consortium of eight colleges, private and public, four-year and county colleges, that model is transportable to any other state in the union. What makes NJ–STEP particularly successful is that we have the best colleges in New Jersey involved. Rutgers, Princeton, Drew, and the College of New Jersey are the four-year schools, and Mercer, Raritan Valley, Essex County College, and Salem College are the four county colleges.

NJ-STEP is able to create a curriculum that enables students to stay current in their college work while they’re doing time. In the rest of the country, if a person who’s incarcerated takes a course in prison, and then gets out and tries to get that course transferred into a college, he or she has trouble getting it transferred. But in our system, every one of the institutions at the consortium has agreed to honor every class offered by the consortium. We haven’t had a student accepted to Princeton yet, but if somebody ever gets accepted into Princeton from our group, they walk in with 30 credits toward a bachelor’s degree at Princeton. We really are a college program housed within the prison system.

As chair of Newark Mayor Baraka’s transition committee on public safety, have you received comments on NJ-STEP from the mayor?

Mayor Baraka strongly believes in second chances for incarcerated citizens. He has praised the work of NJ-STEP and supports its expansion as we increase our efforts to provide educational opportunities to prisoners. As I said before, this program reduces the likelihood of recidivism and ultimately uplifts the neighborhoods because formerly incarcerated students reenter their communities with a positive trajectory. This plays a significant role in Newark’s goals for public safety.