Before Congress decided to end prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants in 1994, a reform enacted under President Clinton’s 1994 omnibus crime bill, several states led national efforts to provide educational opportunities for inmates in their states.
When Congress decided to stop extending Pell grant eligibility to prisoners, despite the fact that a Government Accountability Office report at the time showed there was no impact on other needy students’ ability to receive aid by maintaining prison Pell, several institutions in many states worked privately to continue to extend these opportunities to students in their states.
Rutgers University, New Jersey’s public system that includes 30 campuses, and Raritan Valley Community College, in Branchburg Township, were among them, and are the only two institutions in the state approved.
Even before President Obama announced a pilot program to bring back prison Pell beginning in the 2016-17 school year — with Rutgers and Raritan Valley co-authorized as a pilot site serving seven correctional facilities across the state — the institutions had been working to provide educational associations to incarcerated individuals, with particular efforts toward reintegrating them back onto the campuses upon their release.
Obama’s Second Chance Pell program was enacted as an executive action under the experimental sites provision of the Higher Education Act in 2015, targeting approximately 12,000 inmates at over 100 federal and state penal institutions across the country who are within three and five years of release. The partnering institutions offer classroom-based instruction at the prisons — in the case of Rutgers and Raritan Valley, New Jersey inmates can earn either an associate of arts degree for transfer, or a bachelor of arts in criminal justice. Raritan Valley offers the associate degree, Rutgers the bachelors, and the entire program is administered under the umbrella of the NJ-Step program, which is the latest iteration of a consortium agreement around prison education in New Jersey. NJ-Step is housed at Rutgers and serves as a liaison organization between the community college, university system and the prison system.
Sheila Meiman, director of prison education at Raritan Valley, emphasized that the state's department of corrections is an equal partner in the arrangement, which she said would not be successful without their full buy-in and voice. Most people don't know, she said, that prisons have fully operational high schools inside, and it's often these high schools that serve as feeders for NJ-Step and other similar programs. The Department of Corrections has authorized holding graduation ceremonies on the same day, so that the high school graduates have the opportunity to sit with peers who have earned an associate degree and gain motivation to continue their educations.
"We’re not just in there teaching good information to people, we’re providing an education" by way of credit-bearing courses and degree pathways, Meiman said.
Since Raritan Valley got involved with this work in 2008-2009, over 500 students have enrolled in the associate degree program, and more than 100 have completed their degrees, most of them earning their credentials while still in prison.
"Because these students need to attend primarily on a part-time basis, it takes them longer to get through their degree progression. They have jobs and programs inside the prison community they’re obliged to do. There’s also the issue of space: I can only offer as many classes and enroll as many students as I have classrooms for," said Meiman.
But Meiman said some of the best students the college has ever seen have been "our inside students."
"The diligence that they approach the work with has been so impressive to teachers, and going back to teaching without any crutches, no technology to lean on, has been almost a pedagogical gift to our teachers," many of whom are faculty members at other universities, including a large contingent from Princeton, who are certified by Raritan as adjuncts for the program.
The most fulfilling part for Meiman and other faculty members is watching students go from self identifying as inmates to educated people once they receive their degrees. Of the roughly 100 who have graduated while incarcerated, 60 have enrolled in the bachelor's degree program offered through Rutgers. A bachelor’s in criminal justice was created specifically for this population. It distinguishes itself from Rutgers’ existing bachelor’s of science in criminal justice by focusing primarily on justice as a concept across disciplines, across cultures and inequalities as they exist, and positioning graduates to work in research and policy, rather than in traditional criminal justice professions like law enforcement.
Chris Agans, acting director for all NJ-Step program and Rutgers’ director of transitions, said the new program is “a really good fit” for inmates, many of whom “want to go into criminal justice reform once they graduate.”
New Jersey came under fire earlier this year when it was discovered that at least two prisons had banned Michelle Alexander’s book "The New Jim Crow," which focuses on mass incarceration in the U.S. and its impact on black men, specifically. At the same time, New Jersey continues to lead the nation in racial disparities of the imprisoned population — though African-Americans make up only 15% of the state’s population, they account for 60% of its prisoners.
These are the experiences and perspectives many of the incarcerated students bring with them to campus once they’re released, and Agans said many are passionate about changing the system once they’re out.
Agans is tasked with making sure students transition smoothly at Rutgers and see their passions through to a degree. But, he said, the students’ drive makes his job much easier: “These are also students who tend to over perform. These are not students who are struggling on campus.”
A majority of the students enter other programs once they're on campus, he said, with social work, human resources management and information technology being popular.
The program is so new, there no statistical data on its effectiveness. Plus, Agans said, the program is “by no means a money maker; we’re constantly in the red to make this work.” In fact, he said, money from the Second Chance Pell program covers only about 5% to 10% of the center’s work.
A proposal to provide state-funded grants for prisoners, in addition to the federal money they receive, has passed the state senate’s higher education committee, but is not scheduled for a vote by the full body, according to New Jersey State Senator Sandra Cunningham. Cunningham believes making prison education a legislative priority is a matter of securing the state’s workforce and economic needs.
“When we imprison people, we don’t want to actually warehouse them,” she said, adding that it’s “very important to our economy” that these individuals come out and contribute to the productivity of the state.
But despite the lack of financial benefits, Agens said there are a lot of institutional gains from efforts to increase opportunities for incarcerated or transitioning students.
“This is a population that has been historically ignored but does have high potential for enrollment,” he said. For Rutgers, which “prides itself on its diversity and its accessibility,” the program is the institution putting its money where its mouth is, so to speak, to “improve its student diversity, which creates a [better] working environment” for not just students, but faculty who are enriched by the perspectives and life experience these learners bring.