Incarcerated Graduates Changing Their Lives Around

For the past several decades, we have all heard the key to success is through getting a good education.  Many who do not have a high school diploma struggle through life.  Some find themselves behind bars.  No one on earth is too old to receive a high school diploma or a college degree.

Those who are in prison made a wrong choice, and we all know life is full of options, both good and bad ones.  The real meaning of prison is meant to reform along with punishing some of the most hardened criminals.  That is why they call it a “Correctional” Facility.  For those who can be reformed, a new option has come available for prisoners who wish to get a diploma or degree before they go back to the outside world.

Lavonta Bass is one of those prisoners who took the offer to better himself.  As a 42-year-old convict, he spent over 10 years behind bars for aggravated assault.  Bass turned down an early release for good behavior to further his education, and he wanted to show his son his dad was going to graduate with honors as the valedictorian.

Bass told CBS News, “I think it was a symbolic moment for him.  For me to really show him that although I’m here, I’m still trying to do things to better myself.”

Bass was one of the college graduates among the 56 receiving their degrees at the East Jersey State Prison.  All graduates received an associate’s degree from Raritan Valley Community College or a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University.  The program coordinator stated both degrees are equal to the real thing.

Sheila Meiman, a director at Raritan Valley, said, “If we had a degree inside that didn’t stand the test of time when the person leaves, what would we really be offering them in terms of a credential?  They need the skills, they need the knowledge, they need the ability to transfer that degree.”

Inside the walls of the prison came forth, the idea of genuine reform, and it is working miracles.  The program available is called, New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison, or NJ-STEP, which is a partnership between Raritan Valley, Rutgers and the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Prisoners who take this opportunity are changing their lives around completely.  They are doing a complete 360, and Bass is one who is preparing for his release and ready for the challenge and the change.

Bass said as he prepares to provide for his family, “I’ve been gone for quite some time.  Everything I do now, it’s not about me, it’s about them. This is just one step of many that needs to be taken so we can continue to move forward.”  He assured everyone as the valedictorian, he is completely focused.

There are 13 correctional facilities in the state of New Jersey, and seven are participating in the program.  Over 200 prisoners have achieved associates degrees and over 40 obtained their bachelor’s degrees in Justice Studies.

The hardest challenge for the program is the cost.  Margaret DiZerega, a project director at the Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said, “Overnight, we saw the availability of college programs in prison vanish.

Talking to people who were in prison at the time, they remember just this feeling of hopelessness that came down after the crime bill.”  The 1994 Crime Bill barred prisoners from getting student aid, and it put a damper in everything.

New Jersey’s seven participating prisons are experimental, and the results are outstanding.  None of the prisoners ended up back in jail, and all went on to do better for themselves and their families.

In the Second Chance Pell, there are only 11,000 students who participate.  If the ban is lifted, there would be 463,000 eligible prisoners who can receive federal education assistance.  This is putting money in the right place and will assist those who wish to change their lives around for the better.

Bass continued to explain, “If a prisoner isn’t doing well, we form study groups.  We surround him, we circle the wagons, and we make sure he gets the things that he needs.

We just don’t give up on him because we have to carry it forward for the next people coming behind us.”  This also helps to inspire others and to teach them about teamwork.  He also sums up the program by saying, “It is redefining the identity of the incarcerated man.”