Bianco, 34, of Eagleswood Township spent six and half years in prison. Two years in, she was introduced to NJ-STEP, a program through which she could build upon the associate’s degree she had already obtained toward a bachelor’s degree.
“I didn’t want to sit and waste my time. I already wasted enough of my life,” she said. “When I went away my son was 6. I came home he turned 13. I literally missed his whole life. It wasn’t an option for me to come home and not be OK.”
Thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this month, state tuition aid will now permanently be available to New Jersey residents who are incarcerated, enshrining an experimental federal education effort that began under the Obama administration re-opening access to higher education in prison.
NJ-STEP, short for New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium, is a partnership between New Jersey Department of Corrections, Raritan Valley Community College and Rutgers University-Newark that offers associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs to qualifying prisoners within the state prisons. There are also several other colleges, especially Princeton University, that contribute instructors and other resources to the program.
When a prisoner is released, if they did not finish their degree, they have the opportunity to apply and enroll in other colleges with assistance from NJ-STEP.
Prior to 2016, NJ-STEP was entirely funded through private money and institutions. Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education instituted the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative giving NJ-STEP the opportunity to use the Pell grants to offset the cost of education in prisons. Now, the availability of TAG money will make the program sustainable, said NJ-STEP Director Chris Agans.
Agans said the student outcomes are tremendous, so far.
“We have folks who are working for all sectors of industry,” Agans said. “A large number of our folks go into social work and nonprofits.”
He said the graduates are “uniquely qualified for that work because of their lived experiences.”
Allen Tally was 30 years old when he went to prison in 1989, facing 25 years to life, on robbery and aggravated assault charges — a father, an addict and uneducated.
At age 56, Tally enrolled a program called NJ-STEP, where he began taking classes toward a college degree. Now, after being released from South Woods State Prison last year, he is on his way to a bachelor’s in social work from Rutgers-Camden.
“I was a troubled youth. I didn’t have any guidance and it led me the wrong way. I think based on my life experience the things that I’ve been through I can contribute, especially (to) young black youth like me,” Tally said. “I went from a prison cell to one of the top universities in the state, and I’m doing my thing and I’m successful.”
By Claire Lowe