Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons


Margaret Quern Atkins, Director of NJ-STEP

Margaret has been working on issues pertaining to sentencing, incarceration and the reentry/reintegration of returning citizens for more than a decade. Believing that reentry/reintegration work optimally begins on the first day of incarceration and should be focused on education and community involvement in partnership with people in prison, Margaret initiated the Partnership for Religion and Education in Prisons (PREP) at Drew University, Theological School in 2007. Margaret served as the Coordinator for PREP for five years bringing in professors to facilitate combined classrooms of outside and inside students in two NJ correctional facilities, and eventually helping to establish the College Bound Consortium (CBC). For two years, CBC piloted a full college degree program at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in partnership with Raritan Valley Community College, and now continues under the umbrella of NJ-STEP. In 2008 , Margaret was commissioned to organize and coordinate Assembly Majority Leader Watson Coleman’s initiative to conduct eight community-based public hearings across the State. The “Counting the Costs” Initiative explored the consequences of mass incarceration and the challenges of reentry/reintegration, involved over 1500 participants across the State of NJ, was informed by those most directly affected by the criminal justice system, and resulted in the passage of three comprehensive bills that were signed into law on January 19, 2010. Margaret used the momentum from that victory to help establish the “Integrated Justice Alliance”, a cross-sector advocacy organization around criminal justice policy currently administered by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. Trained as a professional Community Organizer, Margaret has been doing organizing work in urban crisis centers since 1995.

Margaret has a BA in Urban Studies and Afro-American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and holds two Masters Degrees: MA in Criminal Justice Policy and Administration from Rutgers University and a Masters in Theological Studies from Drew Theological School. Margaret’s academic work has included the development of the “Integrative Justice Theory”, advocating for collaborative work inside prisons for the purpose of restoration and responsibility to the community; as well as the creation of a Doctoral Program entitled, “Prisons, Public Policy, and Transformative Justice” at New Brunswick Theological School.


Christopher J. Agans, Director of Transitions

Chris is NJ-STEP’s Director of Transitions, leading the supports for NJ-STEP students once they transition home into community. He is a graduate of both Rutgers College and Rutgers Graduate School of Education where he earned a Masters Degree in Educational Administration. Chris is the former Director of the federally funded TRIO Student Support Services program for Rutgers New Brunswick, managing all aspects of academic and personal support services for low-income, first-generation college students. Chris has also served as an instructor for various educational access programs such as the Educational Opportunity Fund, The Ronald E. Mcnair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program and Project L/Earn. He has served at Rutgers since 1999 in a wide variety of other roles as well, including: IT professional; resident adviser, residence counselor; and a course instructor for Douglass Residential College.


Adrian Backus, NJ-STEP Student Affairs

Adrian Backus currently serves as Assistant Director of NJ-STEP. Prior to this he served as vice president for information technology at Princeton Theological Seminary, from 1999-2013. Mr. Backus holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; J.D. from Howard University, and Master’s of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has worked nationally and internationally in the governmental, non- government development, higher education, and technology fields. A former U.S. Department of State diplomatic escort officer, small-business owner, and country representative for Africare, he has managed programs in Rwanda/Burundi; Central Africa; Senegal, Gambia, Cape Verde, and Mauritania, West Africa. He is a National Honorary Citizen of the Republic of Rwanda, Central Africa, Ruhengeri Prefecture, and the Republic of Senegal, West Africa, Tivouane Prefecture.


Regina Diamond-Rodriguez, Mountainview-Newark Program Coordinator

Regina provides direct support to NJ-STEP students enrolled at Rutgers – Newark through the Mountainview Program. Regina is a Licensed Social Worker and graduate of Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service (MSW). Regina earned her BA in social work at Rutgers where she earned a number of awards and scholarships for her leadership in the LGBTQ Community as well as her service and involvement with the Mountainview Program. This includes her role as co-founder of the Mountainview Project Student Organization (MVP-SO).  Regina joins NJ-STEP after spending several years as a care manager for children and teens with mental, emotional and behavioral health challenges.  Her work included advocating for court-involved youth and linking children and families to resources in their communities and within their school systems.


Derek Elkins, Data and Scheduling Manager

Derek worked with NJ-STEP as the Admissions Officer for two years assisting students with college enrollment and financial aid after release from prison. Derek transitioned to his current role with NJ-STEP after leading the implementation of the Edvance Software System. Derek measures data needs for specific projects, determines course needs and schedules, establishes data quality standards, and oversees all reporting to VERA, Sunshine Lady, Ford Foundation, Rutgers University, and other NJ-STEP partners.

Derek spent several years working in admissions for the graduate and theological schools at Drew University. Derek holds two M.A. degrees in religion and education from Union Presbyterian Seminary and Drew University; he earned a B.A. in philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A focus of Derek’s academic work was the resilience of children with incarcerated parents. His article, “Lift Every Voice: The Humanizing Work of Children’s Testimony in Response to the Effects of Parental Incarceration,” was published in the 2012 volume of the Journal of Childhood and Religion.


Isaiah Fudge, Completion Counselor

Isaiah joins NJ-STEP as the Completion Counselor for the program.  Isaiah’s background in education spans 9 years, where he has held various roles in middle school, secondary, and higher education. He has first-hand experience with many of the flawed systems that negatively impact underserved groups. A certified teacher in the state of New Jersey, Isaiah spent countless hours designing lessons that broadened his students’ thinking about the world around them. He transitioned into guidance when he recognized his ability to impact students in a less confined role.  His approach helped students on the front-end of being “caught in the system”. Now, Isaiah hopes to help students recognize, establish, and explore a new “front-end” in their lives by being a supportive resource as they journey through college.


Jeff Melillo, Mountainview-New Brunswick Senior Program Coordinator

Jeff provides direct support to NJ-STEP students enrolled at Rutgers – New Brunswick through the Mountainview Program. Jeff is a Certified Teacher and has taught several courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels for Rutgers as an adjunct instructor.  Jeff earned his BA in English and Psychology at Rutgers and is a graduate of Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.  Jeff joins NJ-STEP after spending several years as a secondary classroom teacher, adjunct, instructional designer and coordinator for educational organizations like The Boys Club of New York and Columbia University’s Program in Building Community.  Jeff is also a doctoral student at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education where he studies the phenomenon of mindfulness in learning and leading.


Amarilis Rodriguez, Academic Counselor

Amarilis Rodriguez is the Academic Counselor at New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. She is a Camden, NJ native and was incarcerated under the New Jersey Department of Corrections from October 2006 to April 2009. While still incarcerated, she enrolled through a community programs halfway house in the Essex County College Next Step program. Upon release, she applied and was admitted to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey through the Mountainview Program (RU-MVP). She is a proud graduate of both Rutgers University and Douglass College, where she completed her Joint Bachelor of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies, and Information Technology and Informatics with a minor in Social Justice – graduating cum laude.

In her time at Rutgers University, Amarilis co-founded a student organization, the Mountainview Project Student Organization (MVP-SO), which promotes education in prisons by offering tutoring services for currently incarcerated students and helps to raise awareness about the potential of formerly incarcerated students on campus. Prior to her position as Academic Counselor, Amarilis also volunteered for the New Jersey Society for Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) as a mentor to women who are still incarcerated.

As a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, she researched the effects of migration on gender identity in Puerto Rican women. She was also an Aresty Undergraduate Research Fellow and the recipient of the 2013 Dee Garrison Award for Justice and Peacemaking, along with many other awards. Amarilis is currently applying to masters programs, where she hopes to continue to be a voice for formerly incarcerated individuals and further explore the many endless possibilities of successful reform through education.