Founded by Dr. Donald Roden of Rutgers University – New Brunswick, the MountainviewProgram (MVP) initially started as a volunteer GED tutoring group for incarcerated youth at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale, New Jersey. In 2013 the MVP program was incorporated into a consortium of higher education institutions known as the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ – STEP). The MVP then transitioned into the reentry component within NJ – STEP’s prison to higher education pipeline and is housed at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University – Newark.
Following the formalization of NJ-STEP, the Vera Institute of Justice selected them as part of a five-year national initiative that provides incentive funding and technical assistance to three selected states to participate in the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project. The consortium is a membership of community colleges and public and private universities that collaborates with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board by providing post-secondary courses to incarcerated students in seven state correctional facilities and formerly incarcerated students in various New Jersey community colleges and the Rutgers University.
One of the unique components of NJ-STEP is that they hire former students of the program as academic counselors to assist incarcerated students in creating an academic plan towards an associate’s degree. The counselors along with the faculty who teach on site create a space within the prison where students can develop their social and navigational capital in regards to higher education. Counselors provide individual support to incarcerated students who seek to pursue higher education upon reentry. As the reentry component within NJ-STEP, the MVP at Rutgers University provides formerly incarcerated students with individual support, academic counseling and guidance as students try to balance the difficulties of re-entering society while pursuing a degree at Rutgers University.
My role as the Completion Counselor primarily involves working with students who have been recently released or are in community college. I also participated in the Topics in Criminal Justice: Mountainview Program Seminar facilitated by Chris Agans the director of the MVP. The seminar was specifically designed for a cohort of first-year students at Rutgers University – Newark & New Brunswick. The objective of the course was to provide students with general understanding of the resources available at Rutgers University, to help them develop an academic plan to succeed and understand the culture of higher education. The course incorporates into the seminar current publications, research, best practices and the student’s personal experience with the purpose of getting students to think about the knowledge they bring to the classroom, what skills they need to develop, and what resources they need to achieve their goals. The assigned readings addressed different theoretical approaches that help students succeed at an institution of higher learning; such as, Rutgers University.
Since 2008 the MVP has assisted 110 students in admission into Rutgers University, 25 students have graduated with their Bachelor’s degree and 5 students have received their Master’s degree. Currently there are 37 formerly incarcerated students enrolled at Rutgers University – New Brunswick and 12 students are enrolled at Rutgers University – Newark. Whether it’s a prison education or an academic re-entry program these spaces must provide the resources for the development of their student’s social and navigational capital. Developing this capital is crucial to the success of formerly incarcerated student’s, as it increases exponentially the chances of formerly incarcerated student’s moving into higher education and reduces the recidivism rates.
With the right resources provided, higher education can help formerly incarcerated people in many ways. Formerly incarcerated people face many unique challenges when attempting to access higher educational opportunities. The weekly seminars create a structural response to these challenges. By allowing some mitigation of the obstacles, both real and psychological, formerly incarcerated students are granted the opportunity to engage with the material presented in the classroom, as well as incorporate their lived experience into the seminar. The seminar gives formerly incarcerated students the social and navigational capital to succeed in higher education, while at the same time helping them to develop a positive sense of identity in a society that rejects and stigmatizes their lived experience and does not view them as a source of knowledge.
Danny Murillo is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, receiving his BA in Ethnic Studies. He is currently a John Gardner Fellow, working at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City and the Mountainview Program at Rutgers University.