Dameon Stackhouse was several years into his prison sentence when he learned he would have a shot at earning his college degree. He was 37 years old and sitting inside East Jersey State Prison.
“You hear things, and over time, you’re just disappointed so many times,” Stackhouse told CBS News. “But I’m optimistic, so whenever something is presented to me, I jump clean on it whether it’s real or not.”
Despite his initial skepticism, the opportunity turned out to be very real. It was 2013, the first year of an initiative known as New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison, or NJ-STEP.
“When you educate individuals on how to be better and productive citizens, you don’t have to keep reinvesting in that,” Stackhouse said when asked about criticism of tax dollars paying for an inmate’s education.
“That investment turns over,” he added. “You work with the community. It stops our kids from going to the youth correctional facilities.”
Stackhouse currently participates in a diversion initiative to help juveniles stay out of the criminal justice system he spent over a decade in himself. He said the ultimate goal is to open up a youth center of his own.
During Stackhouse’s early days at Rutgers, one professor, in particular, took an interest in his success.
“The students we get are very young, in their late teens, early 20s,” said Elizabeth Torres, an associate professor of psychology. “[Stackhouse] was very soft-spoken. Something about his demeanor is very calming. That’s what I remember the most.”
Now Stackhouse works in Torres’ lab. There he helps conduct experiments for leading autism research. She has pledged to help him find funding to reach his next goal: a Ph.D. in psychology.
East Jersey State Prison houses the most NJ-STEP participants in the state. Hicks said success stories like Stackhouse’s are vital to the growth of the program.
“The typical offender in this facility is here for a longer sentence,” Hicks added. “They’re hungry, they have time to devote to their studies. They see the other successful students have had with their education and word is spreading around.”
Stackhouse not only serves as a role model for those waiting to be released but for the kids he volunteers with. It’s a position he doesn’t take lightly. He says he’s always working toward the goal of his own youth center one day in Trenton.
“I’ve always been a therapist, I’ve just never had the education before,” he said. “Even when I was incarcerated, everybody came to me with issues. I have my own issues, but I can listen. Sometimes people just need to talk it out. I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
By Tyler Kendall
Tyler is a content producer for CBSN. She also covers criminal justice reform. Reach her at: email@example.com.