Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons

NJ-Step Overview

Who we are and what we do: The New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the State of New Jersey Department of Corrections and New Jersey State Parole Board, to (a) provide higher education courses for all students under the custody of the State of New Jersey while they are incarcerated, and (b) assist in the transition to college life upon their release into the community.

Our vision is that every person in prison who qualifies for college have the opportunity to take college classes while incarcerated and continue that education upon release.

Though our ranks will grow, the current member institutions are: Cumberland Community CollegeDrew University; Essex County College; Mercer County Community College; Princeton University; Raritan Valley Community College; Rutgers University; Salem Community College; and The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

How we work: The consortium is housed at Rutgers University in Newark. Each consortium member has a working partnership with one or more of the correctional facilities in New Jersey. Every consortium member is responsible for selecting teachers and offering courses in the partner facility. The central staff of the consortium coordinate the schedule of courses to be offered at each facility, so that course offerings match what students need in order to continue their matriculation. Part-time academic counselors assigned to each facility maintain progress records for all students of the consortium, to identify the courses needed at each facility. Students receive regular advisement about what courses to take in order to maintain progress toward the degree. The AA degree in liberal studies is currently offered, with plans to expand to a BA degree.

Guidelines for approved syllabi and minimal qualifications for instructors enable all consortium members to accept credit for classes taught within the consortium model. Working within these curriculum guidelines approved for each course enables students to stay enrolled in classes even when transferred between facilities.

Our academic counselors help plan for release from prison, and our central Admissions Officer helps students get accepted into colleges contiguous with their release. Consortium members have developed reentry support programs at their colleges to improve success rates of formerly incarcerated students who are enrolled there.

Students who have been released can also transfer into one of NJ-STEP’s Mountainview Communities on the various Rutgers campuses. For those who meet eligibility requirements, NJ-STEP assists students through the university admission process and equips admitted students with the academic, social, and professional resources necessary for success. Mountainview Communities began under the volunteer leadership of Dr. Donald Roden in 2005, and are now a fully integrated piece of the NJ-STEP prison to college pipeline. Mountainview Communities have formed associated student organizations (MVP-SOs) to promote campus awareness regarding mass incarceration, human rights abuses, criminal justice reform and the benefits of education for the incarcerated.

We are currently offering courses in seven facilities in New Jersey. Working with The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, every aspect of our program is subjected to both ongoing results evaluation.

How we are funded: NJ-Step has been pre-selected for the Pathways Project managed by the Vera Institute of Justice and funded by a conglomerate of funders including Ford, Gates, Kaiser, Soros, and the Sunshine Lady Foundation. Ford and SLF have committed $4 million over the next four years to support our work. WE are in the process of raising an additional $500,000 per year enable us to expand to full capacity.

Why we are doing this work: A host of studies of higher education in prison demonstrate that this is one of the nest ways to reduce the recidivism rates of people who are sentenced to prison. While we are dedicated reformers who share a vision of social justice, we also know that by expanding the opportunities for college in prison, we reduce the rate of correctional failure, increase public safety, and in the long run reduce the costs of prison.