NJ-STEP Changing Lives Behind Bars

NJ-STEP Changing Lives Behind Bars

Todd Clear, provost of Rutgers University-Newark and former dean of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice
Photo: Nick Romanenko
George Washington Carver said, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door to freedom" and for hundreds of people incarcerated in New Jersey’s prisons, these words ring true as they take college courses that change lives and set the stage for brighter futures upon their release.

These inmates 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, discusses how NJ-STEP 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 involved in prisoner education and formed a consortium to combine 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?

Gov. Christie loves it and has 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. Research shows that people who attend college while incarcerated have almost half the recidivism rate of those who don’t. You 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 incentives do foundations have 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, like some in Newark and other cities, a large number of people have spent time in prison, affecting the economic and social infrastructure of the entire neighborhood. Charitable foundations understand that the problem needs to be addressed and one of the very best ways to do so is to provide an opportunity for those behind bars to be able to succeed once they’re released. There is literally no better program to reduce recidivism -- not drug treatment, not anger management, not counseling -- than 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.  Essex County College has a program called Next Step, which we are affiliated with 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.  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 a Next Step student to Rutgers University-Newark, we provide the same kind of support  the student needs 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 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 Jerse, 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 here --  which involves a consortium of eight colleges that includes  private, public, four-year institutions and county colleges -- 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, Mercer, Raritan Valley, Essex County College and Salem College.

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 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, she would 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.

-- Jade McClain