By: Follow Local News Staff
CAMDEN, N.J. — New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) program finds success for formally incarcerated students at Rutgers-Camden.
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.
Darryl Brooks, a graduate of the program, credits education as far and away the primary reason he is a different person than he was a decade ago.
“I see how my stars are changing,” Brooks, who graduated in January with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, said. “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.”
There are currently eight Rutgers–Camden students who took college courses while incarcerated via the NJ-STEP program and are completing their baccalaureate degrees on campus via NJ-STEP’s companion Mountainview program, a program founded by Donald Roden, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
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 said.
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 is currently on the Rutgers–Camden campus, proctoring exams for the Office of Disability Services as well as preparing to take the LSAT with plans to attend Rutgers Law School for dual degrees in law and a masters of public administration. He also serves as a member of the Camden County Re-Entry Committee, which includes members of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and partnering organizations.
Brooks said that 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.
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.”
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