By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
One of the keys to succeeding after prison is to get an education while inside.
Jerry Leonor did nearly six years at the state youth correctional facility and is about to get his master’s degree at Rutgers.
“The program gave me hope, it allowed me to see beyond the prison walls and to know there was a future out there for me,” Leonor said.
Gov. Chris Christie this morning met with inmates and teachers who have participated in a program called NJ STEP, which stands for Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons. Nine public and private New Jersey colleges send teachers into six of the state’s prisons.
“We know that the provision of information can be done very coldly, but when we engage our brothers and sisters in these various facilities, it takes an incredible amount of heart to do this on both parts,” said Alvin Haywood.
About 500 inmates are currently enrolled, including Leonor, who served his sentence, and is now in grad school and saw one of his teachers here.
“He started out with a business certificate and now today he’ll be finishing up his master’s degree. Can you ask for anything else in life?” asked Barbara Jefferson.
The program is funded largely by a foundation called The Sunshine Lady Foundation, started by Warren Buffet’s wife Doris.
With inmates from several prisons linked in by closed circuit, Christie lent his moral support.
“I say to my Republican colleagues all the time that if in fact you are pro-life, you need to be pro-life after they leave the womb, too,” Christie said.
Inmates, it was said today, are literally a captive audience. Here at East Jersey State Prison, 135 men participate.
When asked what the inmates are like as students, NJ STEP teacher Toby Sanders said, “They’re the best students I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve taught at places like Princeton, I’ve taught in high school, I’ve taught in a lot of places. They’re the best students I’ve ever had.”
“One of our teachers in there said today hope is powerful but fragile. I’m gonna let you know now, I’m stealing that. I’m stealing that and I’m gonna use it both across the state and across the country,” said Christie.
This is Gov. Christie’s second prisoner reentry event in less than a month. It’s becoming a signature issue of his second term and one that seems to paint him in a generally sympathetic light.