While incarcerated for drug offenses at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale, N.J., in February 2009, Walter Fortson met Donald Roden, a professor of history at Rutgers University. Roden, a frequent visitor to the correctional facility, was looking to recruit inmates for a program that would support them in pursuing a college degree. At the time, Fortson had no idea that crossing paths with Roden would take him from prison to Rutgers University and, ultimately, to Cambridge in England.
Excited by Fortson’s potential, Roden recruited him to participate in the Mountainview Program, which recruits students from community college programs within New Jersey’s state youth correctional facilities and offers them the academic and reentry support to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Through programs like MVP, higher education institutions in New Jersey are partnering with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to create a model that broadens the educational prospects of individuals who are incarcerated while reducing the recidivism rates.
In order to be considered for the Mountainview Program, located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University, applicants must apply to Rutgers University and have 12 college credits, obtained before or while incarcerated.
“Professor Roden prepared me for Rutgers by encouraging me and reminding me that I was capable of doing it,” says Fortson. “He’d always say, ‘You’ll be an asset to our program.’”
Roden ensured that Fortson had the academic and reentry support he needed during his time at Rutgers. Roden assisted with housing, tutoring, establishing relationships with Fortson’s parole officer and peer support.
“It was exceedingly helpful,” Fortson says. “Everything that I am today is because of those relationships, the efforts and support, bridging those gaps and making those connections. I personally know, had it not been for the Mountainview Program, Rutgers would have denied my application.”
Last year, Fortson sat on the advisory board that formed the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. “The New Jersey stakeholders in education and corrections came together to form NJ-STEP because, ultimately, we all had the same goal,” he says. The goal of NJ-STEP is to connect every state correctional facility in New Jersey with a two- and four-year college.
NJ-STEP is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that work in partnership with the Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to provide higher education courses for students while incarcerated and to assist in their transition to college life upon release from prison. Housed at Rutgers University in the School of Criminal Justice, consortium members include Drew University, Essex County College, Mercer County Community College, Princeton University, Raritan Valley Community College, Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey.
The consortium coordinates the schedule of courses offered at each facility, so students can obtain the necessary credits needed to fulfill their degree requirements. The state of New Jersey’s NJ-Transfer allows all course credit to easily transfer between two-year colleges and, upon completion of the associate degree, four-year state schools.
To increase the graduation rates for their students enrolled in the NJ-STEP program, consortium members have developed reentry support programs at their colleges. Reentry support programs include peer support, housing support, academic advisers, tutors and financial tutoring.
NJ-STEP was given funding in January 2013 for the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education project, a model for postsecondary education in prison, which has been implemented in New Jersey and will be implemented in Michigan and North Carolina. The Pathways project will provide each state with a four-year, $1 million fund for educational programs in correctional facilities and reentry support within and outside of correctional facilities. In addition to funding, Pathways will collect data that will create a model for other states to follow.
The Pathways project is managed by the Vera Institute of Justice and funded by several funders, including the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Pathway funders will support the work of NJ-STEP.
“A direct result of postsecondary education is that it increases the student’s employability, increases earning potential and disrupts the cycle of inter-generational poverty,” says Fred Patrick, director of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project. “This Pathways project is a cost-effective way for helping to renew communities and helping to reduce recidivism.”
Fortson finished his undergraduate degree in May and will attend Cambridge in England in the fall, where he plans to obtain a masters in criminology. Fortson points out that he is by no means the exception to the success that has been accomplished in MVP. This year, MVP will have its largest graduating class. Of the eight graduates, two are Truman scholars, and more than half have a GPA over 3.5.
“We are people who have taken the second chance seriously,” says Fortson. “We have taken it, and we haven’t looked back.”