BY FERLANDA FOX NIXON
November 2, 2015
On Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) welcomed President Barack Obama on his latest stop on his national tour on criminal justice reform. With more than 600,000 individuals released from state and federal prisons each year, President Obama shared his sense of urgency to create a criminal justice system that is fairer and more effective and breaks the poverty, criminality, and incarceration stranglehold that often impairs lives, particularly African-American and Latino males, and destroys communities, especially distressed urban areas.
At RU-N’s Center for Law and Justice, President Obama convened a roundtable discussion on the issues of mass incarceration and the reentry of people exiting correctional systems and reintegrating into community life. President Obama, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, RU-N faculty, staff, and students, and community leaders and residents involved in the criminal justice system engaged in discourse intended to inform effective policymaking that benefits incarcerated and released individuals, impacted families and communities, and the economy.
Amarilis Diamond-Rodriguez, a Rutgers University-New Brunswick alumna, participated in the roundtable discussion. While eventually the recipient of a bachelor’s degree, Rodriguez first had to overcome the consequences of felony charges before claiming her alumna status. Convicted of possession and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, Rodriguez received a five-year sentence with 2.5 years of parole ineligibility. She served 18 months in Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and one year in a halfway house before being paroled. While in the halfway house, Rodriguez began her “prison-to-college” journey through a process that ultimately would become known as the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program.
NJ-STEP, a statewide initiative administered by RU-N, works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board, and a network of public and private, two- and four-year colleges to provide higher education courses to eligible individuals who are incarcerated in one of New Jersey’s seven correctional facilities. The program also assists in the transition to college life of released students who demonstrate they are college-ready and eager to improve their lives. NJ-STEP is not a state-funded program, which means it does not derive its revenues from taxpayer dollars. All of its financial support comes from private donors. This fall RU-N received its first cohort of 10 NJ-STEP students.
Instrumental in Rodriguez obtaining a bachelor’s degree in women and gender studies and information technology, with a minor in social justice, NJ-STEP helped Rodriguez adjust to campus life, acted as a “portal” to resources at Rutgers and in the surrounding campus communities, connected her to financial, academic, and other student support services, and fostered peer networks.
As with many individuals with a criminal record, finding a job after Rodriguez’s release from the halfway house proved to be challenging. After working for an oral history nonprofit organization, she eventually secured permanent employment with NJ-STEP as a counselor helping other women to complete their “prison-to-college” journey.
During his closing statement following the roundtable discussion, President Obama pointed to NJ-STEP as one of many organizations in Newark doing extraordinary work to help individuals impacted by the criminal justice system who otherwise want to help themselves.
“Folks are working hard to get on track,” President Obama acknowledged. “With a little help, they can get on the right path.”
In his statement, President Obama said that providing help to the reentry population makes sense because it results in less crime, less recidivism, less wasted money, safer communities, more stable families, and economic growth. As such, he announced measures to help promote effective rehabilitation and reintegration, make the journey a lot smoother, and afford all U.S. citizens a chance to make a positive contribution. Actions to be taken include arrests guidance for public and other Department of Housing and Urban Development-assisted housing; banning the box in federal employment; expanding tech training and jobs for individuals with criminal records; permanent supportive housing for the reentry population through “Pay for Success,” and juvenile reentry assistance program awards to support public housing residents. The full text of President Obama’s action plan can be found at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/02/fact-sheet-president-obama-announces-new-actions-promote-rehabilitation.
President Obama delivered his speech in front of a small audience, which included Rodriguez and nine other NJ-STEP students invited by the White House in recognition of the work of NJ-STEP and the positive results it has garnered in a relatively short period of time. President Obama’s statement was broadcast online, however, which allowed several hundred RU-N students, faculty, and staff to gather together in the Paul Robeson Campus Center’s Essex Room to watch the web stream live and witness the historical occasion.
RU-N Chancellor Nancy Cantor points to the hard work of the RU-N community and partners across Greater Newark and New Jersey as having created the gravity to attract the President to choose Newark as the place to make his policy announcement. “We are thrilled to have hosted President Obama and at the same time we could not take more seriously our common purpose in today’s roundtable and presidential address. Together with Senator Booker, Mayor Baraka, and community partners across sectors, we have drawn the national spotlight on the issues of mass incarceration, innovation in reentry supports, and rebuilding resilient communities through decades-long, collaborative work. This is precisely what it takes to make a difference on such challenging issues–and that is what the President said is happening in Newark.”