Program gives prisoners a second chance through college

Rutgers University undergraduate student Boris Franklin reflects on the long road it took to get where he is today.

“People in our community always rooted for each other to do better because we all knew we were in a similar struggle,” said Franklin.

Student isn’t a title Franklin envisioned for himself. He’s working toward a psychology degree after serving an 11-year stint in prison for a deadly drug deal.

“I never imagined going to college before NJ-STEP, so I didn’t think, ‘OK, I’m going to get out of prison and go to school.’ This was completely new to me,” said Franklin.

NJ-STEP, or the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium, is a way for incarcerated residents to gain college credits while in prison and it’s proving to be a successful re-entry tool. The New Jersey Department of Corrections in a statement said, “The benefits produced from the program make it invaluable for participants.”

“NJ-STEP coordinates a number of different colleges teaching in prison. They’re recruiting students. They’re helping with academic advising. And then when students flow back out into the community, they’re also providing re-entry case management supports to help those students’ continued success,” said Margaret diZerega, project director at the center on sentencing and corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.

It’s also the precursor for the federal Second Chance Pell pilot. It’s an experimental program that, two years ago, lifted a 1994 ban preventing the incarcerated from being eligible for Pell Grant dollars toward their education.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, which tracks the progress, New Jersey has the third-highest enrollment out of 27 participating states across the country with 466 students taught as of 2017, not including other funding sources.

“Employment can be a really significant barrier for people with conviction histories. So when formerly incarcerated students can present their credentials, their diplomas to employers, it’s also going to help them get that job that’s going to get them on the career ladder they want to be on,” said diZerega.

“It provides a certain level of hope when you start to realize, OK what could I do with a college degree, and at some point you realize it’s definitely going to be more than I can do with a prison record,” Franklin said.

You could say the proof is in the studies. Research shows access to postsecondary education while in prison dramatically reduces recidivism rates by giving people the skills they need to secure jobs and other opportunities when they’re released.

About 43 percent lower according to a study by the Rand Corporation. It also shows a $4 to $5 savings to taxpayers for every $1 invested in prison-based education.

“We know that there are benefits for public safety in the community, but it’s also worth noting there are benefits for the safety within the prisons. So where these programs are operating, we see fewer incidents of violence, which means it’s a safer environment to work for the corrections officers and it’s also a safer environment to live for the people who are incarcerated there,” said diZerega.

“The last semester I made the dean’s list. The one before I didn’t. That’s why I had to make it,” Franklin said.

Now, Franklin is counting his time in a different way — by semester — with just two more to go before degree is in hand and a lifetime of opportunities ahead.