I grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. I graduated with a full-ride scholarship to play football at Montclair State. I got upset with the football coach and dropped out after my first year. During that time I started drinking and using drugs excessively, and became an addict. And my addiction, over the years, is what led to my incarceration. While I was incarcerated, I immediately realized that education was going to be the key, and the tool, that was going to get me back into society. So I was looking for every opportunity to re-establish some form of college education or certificate that would allow me to do something different when I came home. I was a union carpenter during the time that my crime was committed, so I did have stable employment, but I didn’t know if the union would take me back. There were just a whole lot of different things going on in my head, but I knew a college degree would definitely open the door for me.
Experience with Programs
In most of the prisons in New Jersey, they have channels on the TV that give daily announcements. So when you wake up, the first thing you do is you look for the daily announcements to see what’s going on, and there was an announcement about the NJ STEP program, a college program. And that day was one of the most joyous days in prison, where you could feel the hope through everybody. Even individuals that did not have a high school diploma were excited that something like that was coming into the prison. That day was monumental.
I started out with Project Inside, and they started teaching me business management courses and small-business management, but they lost their funding and the program went away. But a year later the NJ-STEP program came to East Jersey State Prison, and they were tied to Rutgers University. And for some reason, I just believed that it was possible. We buckled down on the inside, and there’s a lot of individuals that are still at East Jersey that are working diligently to continue their education. They’re finishing up their bachelor’s inside. We created what we call “#teamworkhard” and we’re individuals who study together, challenge each other, but we make sure that everyone is keeping up to par. Nobody is going to fall through the cracks. If you’re having problems, you ask for help. Which is difficult to establish inside of a prison. Individuals normally do not want to ask for help, but education changed that, that whole stereotype. We’re a testament to individuals that understand that it’s not a weakness to ask for help, it is actually a strength, and we work together to make sure that that happens.
Education changed my life. It changed the way society sees me. It changed what my family believed was possible when I came home. Our recidivism rate is at, like, 72, 73% in the country. In New Jersey, it’s about 43, 44 percent. But it doesn’t have to happen. And your family is afraid that it’s going to happen. So when you prove that the system is wrong, that you can make it… They’re happy. You know, not happy that you went to prison, but happy that you came home, and you’re doing well, and you’re not going back. Being able to go directly onto a college campus and achieve what some would say is greatness because you just left a penitentiary, and now you’re walking across a stage with a diploma, a degree, saying that you’re either a psychologist or social worker… it changes the way people see you.
Education gives you hope, because you tend to believe that there’s nothing possible after incarceration. But education reminds you that there are possibilities. And it gives you hope of things that you could do and things that you want to do and be able to achieve.
There are no limits to education. After I finished my first year at Rutgers, an e-mail came. It was an REU Program for Princeton, and it was a biochem internship. I applied, even though I’m in social work with a minor in Psychology, I applied. And I got the internship. And this internship at Princeton opened doors that I never thought would be opened. I learned a lot about how the system works and a lot of the numbers on recidivism and different programs that are working towards education. If you’re educated while you’re inside, whether it be higher education or some form of trade, your recidivism rate goes down tremendously. Our program’s recidivism rate is around 3%. And they know this across the country, that if you are college educated while you’re in the system, while you’re incarcerated, the recidivism rate for these individuals is less than 10% across the board, across the United States.
Outlook and Importance of Educational Programs
Okay, you commit a crime, obviously there should be some punishment. And there are heinous crimes committed where individuals should be removed from society to protect society. You look at New Jersey and the racial disparities of incarceration in New Jersey, and you realize, yeah, this is just another form of slavery. I’m not saying that everyone deserves to be free, but everyone doesn’t deserve to be incarcerated. There are so many different ways that you can avoid it. There are so many different reasons why individuals commit crimes. If you’re hungry, and you can’t find a job, you’re going to go find some money so that you can eat. You look at the poverty rate in certain towns, cities in New Jersey and across the country. That’s where a lot of the crime is being committed. It’s just systemic.
I do believe that there should be more youth centers or community centers that provide morning, afternoon, and evening meals, safe places, Wi-Fi and computers, and access 24/7. That will change the demographic. Everybody has an opportunity: you’re not fighting for food, you’re not fighting there to figure out what’s going on in the world. You can’t fill out a job application in person anymore, so if you don’t have a computer or Wi-Fi to actually fill out the application, a way for them to respond to you how do you find a job? And this is just regular civilians, so imagine individuals coming home. You haven’t had technology while you were incarcerated the whole time, and technology changes month-to-month. You’ve been gone for years or decades, you have no clue—I’m still learning how to use my phone, I’ve been home for three years now! Those are the things that will help. Someone that’s actually there to teach you, how do you use this, how do you navigate the system? This Word document, this phone which you can use like a computer but you think it’s just for calling people. You don’t realize what different features you have access to. So you need those trainings, you need an abundance of resources in neighborhoods and communities that are deprived.