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.
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.”