Hillsborough Resident Founded Rutgers Prison-to-College Program that Provides a Second Chance for Youths

Donald Roden, center, with Mountainview students, including Terrell Blount and Walter Fortson. Credits: Courtesy Donald Roden

Most people wouldn't consider setting foot in a prison, much less volunteering to teach incarcerated men and women the skills they need to succeed upon release.  

Not Donald Roden.

Roden has dedicated the past decade demonstrating that people behind bars deserve second chances and that educating them pays off. The Rutgers associate professor of history founded a prison–to-college program in 2005 because he believed that the best students – whether they come from the suburbs of New Jersey or from behind its prison walls – should have the opportunities in life that only an education can provide.

Sign Up for E-News

He knew some would thrive. Others might not.

Roden’s tenacity has been instrumental to expanding the prison education system in New Jersey offered to thousands serving sentences today, as well as to former prisoners like Walter Fortson and Ben Chin – who became part of the Mountainview Project at Rutgers, eventually earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the university, and were selected for their "exceptional leadership potential" as national Truman Scholars.

“If Don Roden hadn’t been there in the beginning with the Mountainview Project, none of the students would have come into the program in the first three years and that would have pushed the entire program back considerably,” said Chris Agans, the director of Mountainview program which is now part of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison Consortium program (NJ-STEP) which began offering college courses to those incarcerated in 2012.

Located at Rutgers University-Newark, NJ-STEP now oversees the Mountainview prison-to-college youth prison programs offered at Newark, New Brunswick and Camden.

Roden "had no money, no staff and was basically doing everything himself. But he just kept on going,” Agans said. 

The 71-year-old Roden began visiting the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale in 2002 after his mother died. She had volunteered at a literacy program teaching reading at halfway houses and community centers and he wanted to do something to honor her memory.

Mountainview was close to both his home in Hillsborough and to Rutgers in New Brunswick. For the first year, he tutored inmates who were taking courses through a Union County Community College program.  But Roden wanted to offer these prisoners more.

“I don't know if I could spend a night in one of these facilities without being a nervous wreck that's why I find our students so inspirational," said Roden. "I knew at the time that something else was needed, because I saw that they weren’t continuing with their education when they got out. “We needed a bridge to connect them.”

With the support of the Rutgers history department, fellow faculty members and deans, Roden plowed ahead. He talked to people working in halfway houses, prison advocates and the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Once the program got underway, he spent countless hours at the Mountainview facility telling inmates he thought had the potential to do well academically that they could go to Rutgers when they were released.  Even though some looked at him like he was “a crazy old guy” because they couldn’t imagine that college would be possible, Roden didn’t let up, Agans said.

“I believe that the public has a moral responsibility when it comes to criminal justice and education,” Roden said. “I knew those who were incarcerated deserved the opportunity of an education and was glad that I got the support from Rutgers.”

Studies have shown what Roden has been touting – that prison education prevents recidivism and saves taxpayers money in the long run. In 2013, the RAND Corporation found that formerly incarcerated men and women who participate in education programs have a 43 percent lower rate of recidivism.

A new five-year-study has just begun in New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan called Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education that will look at the prison education system in New Jersey, including the prison program Roden started more than 10 years ago. 

Since its inception, Mountainview has enrolled 110 former inmates.Twenty-five have earned bachelor’s degrees, five have received master’s degrees and 49 are current students.The program’s graduates have an overall 3.1 grade point average, with one former inmate having attained a perfect 4.0.

Most important, only 5.3 percent of those admitted to Rutgers through the Mountainview program have been convicted again – compared to 53 percent of the offenders leaving state correctional facilities who have returned to prison.

“Ideally we would like everyone to graduate, but even those who don’t we try to keep in touch with because we know that the experience has been a positive one,” said Roden. “In almost every case, those who didn’t continue still have the hope of completing their degree.”

Terrell Blount first met Roden at a halfway house in Newark after being released from prison after a five-year sentence for robbery.

“Don is the one who made my going to Rutgers happen,” said Blount, a Rutgers 2013 graduate who works as an admissions and transition counselor at NJ-STEP.  “I never doubted myself once I started at Rutgers, always had a positive attitude and always believed in Don and what he said because he is so sincere.  You knew that whenever you called or needed him, he would be there.”

That’s because Roden knows how to motivate people, says Jason Bell, who served more than a decade in prison and is now the director of Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, among the first programs in the United States to integrate formerly incarcerated prisoners into college. 

“Every Mountainview student that has met him has nothing but love for the man because he didn’t have to do all of this,” said Bell, who has known Roden – a Japanese history scholar in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick – since the Mountainview program began. “He did not come out of prison. His academic background is not connected to prison reform.  He is just intrinsically connected to human nature.  It’s all heart with him.” 

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News


Dr. Jacqueline Littlejohn - Candidate for Piscataway Town Council

April 13, 2018

Why are you running for election to the Piscataway Township Council?

I am running for election to the Piscataway Township Council because I believe that a vibrant democracy only flourishes when the governed have a voice in their government, be it in the form of compromise, protest, or even becoming viable candidates themselves. I have chosen the latter approach. As a candidate I want to be the ...

The Piscataway Democratic Organization Names its 2018 Ward Slate

The Piscataway Democratic Party is putting forward an incredible slate of ward candidates for the Township Council.  “Frank Uhrin, Jim Bullard, Steven D. Cahn and Michele Lombardi have brought us a 12 percent drop in the tax rate, many new job opportunities for hard working residents, and a rise in property values,” party chair and former mayor, Ted Light said.  ...

Mother of Teen Mom Arrested for Endangerment and Evidence-Tampering

April 19, 2018

HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - The mother of the 14-year-old accused of killing her newborn in Highland Park this week has been charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child in the second degree and one count of tampering with physical evidence in the fourth degree.  The woman, 35, of Highland Park, was arrested after the death of a newborn baby on April 16, ...


Piscataway – Reinhard Rudolf Kiefer, 85, died Sunday March 11, 2018 at home. Born in ...
Read more
Piscataway, NJ – Manuela Cruz, 94, born July 17, 1923, passed away peacefully on March 8, ...
Read more

Craft Brew Fest Pours Into Westfield April 28; TAPinto Readers Get $20 Off

April 19, 2018

Westfield Hops – A Craft Beer Experience will be taking place on at the Westfield Armory April 28 with one session from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Enter code TAPINTO when you order your tickets and get $20 off! Tickets are available online at  http://www.westfieldhops.com. All tickets include unlimited tastings and a souvenir tasting glass. 

Westfield Hops – A Craft Beer ...

Travis “TJ” Henry Health Fair - Free Family Community Health Event

Free Family Community Health Event Saturday April 21

TJ was a Rutgers University student from central New Jersey who passed away from sudden cardiac death.

The health fair is named in his honor to bring attention to fitness and wellness in our community.

This year the fair will focus on heart and mental health in young adults and families.

Event Activities:

Fun 3k Run/Walk - Time: ...

Rutgers Professor Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

NEW BRUNSWICK - Helen M. Berman, Board of Governors distinguished professor emerita of chemistry and chemical Biology at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Berman is among 213 people elected to the academy this year, including author Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor Tom Hanks, President Barack Obama, Supreme ...

Upcoming Events

Fri, April 20, 4:00 PM

Firefly Farm, Hopewell

Grafting Workshop

Home & Garden


Fri, April 20, 6:00 PM

Piscataway High School Football Field, Piscataway

Celebration of Euna

Giving Back

Fri, April 20, 6:30 PM

State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick

Wild Kratts

Arts & Entertainment

Sat, April 21, 10:00 AM

Promise Garden, New Brunswick

Earth Day Fest

Arts & Entertainment

Sat, April 21, 11:30 AM

Plainfield YMCA, Plainfield

Plainfield YMCA Healthy Kids Day

Health & Wellness

Job Seekers Flock to Job Fair Hosted by Assemblyman Joe Danielsen

April 19, 2018

SOMERSET, NJ - Hundreds of job seekers came out to meet more than 80 employers for Assemblyman Joe Danielsen's (D-17 Middlesex/Somerset) 4th Annual Job Fair at the Imperia Wednesday afternoon. 

There were two parts to the fair, in the early afternoon hours job seekers had the opportunity to attend workshops geared towards enhancing their job search techniques/interviewing ...

National Child Abuse Prevention Month

April 8, 2018

It is clear from headlines that child abuse and neglect is a nationwide tragedy – and the impacts reverberate to us all. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and we would like to take the opportunity to bring awareness to this issue.

Approximately 702,000 incidents of child maltreatment are identified each year – enough to pack 10 football stadiums. In 2016, an estimated 1,750 ...

Cluelessly Clueless

I teenaged my way through high school under the assumption that my parents had no idea what I was doing.  I like to think I was pretty good at withholding information and presenting situations in ways that were other than they really were.


Still, sometimes they found things out.  Like the time my friends plopped me on our front door step at one o'clock in the morning ...

Want to avoid gaining weight? Don’t diet!

Researchers aiming to identify lifestyle factors related to weight management followed more than 4,500 young adults (average age 24) for ten years. At the end of the study period, 77% of the men and 72% of the women had gained weight. The lifestyle factors associated with no weight gain among the remaining 23% of the men and 28% of women were regular eating patterns (not skipping meals) and no ...