NJ-STEP Program a “Prison-to-Prosperity Pipeline” for Former Inmates

By Tom McLaughlin

It’s about being aware of your opportunities, your potential, and “the hidden treasure inside” of you, explains Darryl Brooks.

There are days, says the recent Rutgers University–Camden graduate, when he will stand on the driveway of his Mount Laurel home and look up at the stars – and even they look a little different.

NJ-STEP, an umbrella organization comprised of higher education institutions in New Jersey, partners with the state to provide higher education courses for all students in state custody, and assists in their transition to college life upon their release.

“I see how my stars are changing,” says Brooks, who graduated in January with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “There’s a path that’s laid for me and I’m paying attention to the signposts now. I’m starting to awaken to my greatness.”

With a new lease on life, Brooks is now a proud graduate of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) program. NJ-STEP, an umbrella organization comprised of higher education institutions in New Jersey, partners with the state to provide higher education courses for all students in state custody, and assists in their transition to college life upon their release.

These days, Brooks is still at home on the Rutgers–Camden campus, proctoring exams for the Office of Disability Services – that is, when he’s not busy preparing to take the LSAT with plans to attend Rutgers Law School for dual degrees in law and a master of public administration.

He is far from alone in his quest to turn the page on past mistakes and make a valuable contribution to society.

There are currently eight Rutgers–Camden students who took college courses while incarcerated via the NJ-STEP program and, much like Brooks did, are completing their baccalaureate degrees on campus via NJ-STEP’s companion Mountainview program. The initiative provides an array of support services, including one-on-one academic coaching, advocacy, and financial aid, as well as assists students in transitioning to campus life.

Marsha Besong, assistant chancellor for student academic success at Rutgers–Camden, lauds the Mountainview students for overcoming incredible obstacles in order to continue their education, which include navigating the probation and parole systems, living in halfway houses, and acclimating to new systems, policies, and procedures.

“Even with these challenges, I am proud to share that in the first academic year of the program at Rutgers–Camden, all of the Moutainview students earned GPAs of 3.3 or higher and three students have graduated,” she says.

Darryl Brooks credits education as far and away the primary reason he is a different person than he was a decade ago.

Brooks adds that, as former inmates return to society, the Mountainview program – founded by Donald Roden, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University–New Brunswick – becomes a vital support network for them on college campuses.

“We help one another, learn together, and interact with the student population no differently than other Rutgers–Camden students,” he says. “However, we are nontraditional students who have a different perspective as it relates to the lived experience of criminal justice or social justice issues.”

Brooks is already bringing his unique perspective to the table as a member of the Camden County Re-entry Committee, which includes members of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and partnering organizations.

Make no mistake, says Brooks, education is not just a byproduct of his time spent “on the inside.” He says that it is far and away the primary reason he is a different person than he was a decade ago.

“The prison-to-prosperity pipeline flows through education,” he says.

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, he recalls, higher education wasn’t an option. In fact, he never even bothered to dream about it.

The youngest of 15 cousins, Brooks remembers being introduced to gang violence at an early age – a few of his cousins were in gangs – but he never had any reason to question it; it was all around him.

“Even when my great-grandfather was in his 80s, he would answer the door with a gun in his hand – a .44 with a long nose, like Clint Eastwood,” he says.

The “wrong social bonds,” continues Brooks, never allowed him to see himself as a scholar, especially one who could empathize with someone else’s plight like he does now. Rather, he allowed other people to define who he was and who he would become.

“I succumbed to the labeling theory,” he says. “I allowed them to superimpose who they saw onto me and I ran with it, as opposed to making decisions and thinking for myself.”

Brooks ended up taking some risks that caught up to him when he was sentenced to New Jersey state prison for 10 years, spending most of his time at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway.

Marsha Besong lauds the Mountainview students for overcoming incredible obstacles in order to continue their education.

Shortly after arriving there, he says, he tried to take college classes through Project Inside – a precursor to the NJ-STEP program – and was told that he was too old to participate.

Formed in 2012, the first NJ-STEP classes – mostly geared toward social justice and criminal justice – were offered a year later at East Jersey State Prison.

Brooks would go on to earn 90 credits from Rutgers University–Newark. The NJ-STEP program, he says, did as much for his mental outlook as his future career prospects.

“Just having the classes and courses, it gives you hope,” he says. “It restores a portion of your humanity. You get to sit in a classroom with a real professor who isn’t judging you based on your attire. They are treating you like a regular student.”

Just as importantly, he says, it gives inmates the necessary tools to succeed upon their return to society.

“If you don’t have a life sentence, you are coming back, so you need those tools,” he says. “If you knew how to do the right thing, most people probably would have. Sometimes people just don’t know how to build themselves up; to be functional in society.”

Upon being released in December 2017, Brooks met with Jane Siegel, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Camden, who reviewed his courses to see what matched those offered at Rutgers–Camden.

He ended up getting all 90 credits accepted and went on to graduate from Rutgers–Camden in January 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in legal studies.

Brooks now hopes to utilize his dual degree to work in local government, where he can help change policies concerning returning citizens. Among his primary goals is to help newly released inmates secure an ID, “the most invaluable tool” needed to seek employment or shelter. He also wants to have a hand in creating preventative measures that will help people avoid jail time.

“Prevention is my goal,” he says. “If they can put programs in place for opioids, then there are plenty of other nonviolent crimes that they could reconsider for mandatory minimums. Maybe they need some type of treatment as opposed to punitive action.”

As the Rutgers–Camden grad presses onward, he has a profound understanding of his new opportunities and intends to make the most of them.

“It is heartening,” he says. “I am thunderstruck at the opportunities that I have.”

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