NJ-STEP Program Lets Inmates Earn Degrees

By Michael Hill

East Jersey State Prison. It was home for most of Boris Franklin’s 11-year incarceration for a deadly drug deal.

“Selling drugs way out of poverty,” he said.

Ivelisse “Bibi” Gilestra spent 13 years in Edna Mahan Prison for a shooting.

“It was a self discovery process as well,” she said.

Both Bibi and Boris found something liberating about being locked up.

“I was an above average student and never heard the word college,” Boris said. “It’s funny, I had to go to jail to go to college.”

Through the multi-foundation funded NJ-STEP — or New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium and in conjunction with the State Corrections Department and Parole Board — Boris and Bibi went to college in prison and earned associate’s degrees. NJ-STEP is a group of nine New Jersey colleges and universities that sends volunteers and instructors behind bars to teach.

“I maintained like a 3.9 GPA,” Boris said.

Upon release and if accepted, former inmates can enroll at Princeton or a handful of community colleges.

It was a big deal. I was excited about going to college, about learning new things,” Boris said.

Rutgers has really given me the ability to set my own path,” Bibi said.

Bibi and Boris are pursuing degrees at Rutgers through its Mountainview Program. Rutgers history professor Don Roden founded Mountainview after he began volunteering behind bars in 2002.

“This is just one small step toward reform and toward social justice,” said Roden.

Last year, President Obama came to Rutgers-Newark and praised its re-entry program.

Small program but noticed.

“We have really been intentional about creating a transportable model, learning as we go, lots of growing pains and lessons along the way and then we’re looking to bring to other places. We’ve been asked by several different states,” said NJ-STEP Director Margaret Quern Atkins.

NJ-STEP and Mountainview say only 5 percent of their students go back to prison. Two have received Truman Scholarships, including Walter Fortson who had a successful business while attending Temple University and then turned to drug dealing to make even more money.

“I think the program helps to mitigate the stigma that goes with incarceration and allows people to get back on their feet and start a new life and that is good for the state of New Jersey and for society,” Roden said.

Bibi says she plans to work with freed inmates. Boris already does motivational speaking on college campuses and at the Global Center for Advanced Studies — sharing his own story of being unchallenged in school once his family moved from Piscataway to New Brunswick.

“They give you a bunch of dates, tell you to remember some stuff and it will be based on whether or not you got a good memory. There will be no cognitive development whatsoever,” Boris said.

Boris says he’s already forming a nonprofit to target underserved communities and the results of not being trained to think, of being overwhelmed emotionally but too immature to make smart choices.

“Some individuals may not know what it’s like to be a young black man but a young black man and afraid. It’s not really socially acceptable in that community. So, it boxes individuals in to a certain set of behaviors that keep them essentially juvenile,” he said.

Boris says he intends for the school to prison pipeline to become the school to college to career pipeline.