It would not be unusual for former inmates to go back to a life of crime. You have the choice: either do the right thing and put yourself on the straight and narrow path, or take the easy way out and become a ward of the system.

Or, as Morgan Freeman says in “Shawshank Redemption”, “institutionalized!”

Darwin Lewis and Amarilis Rodriguez, two former inmates turned-Rutgers grads, decided to return to prison, but this time to help transform the lives of fellow prisoners through education. In order to do this, they each took classes in their respective penal institutions to get their degrees.

Now I know what you’re saying.

“We lock ‘em up so that we can give them an education!”

Former inmates Darwin Lewis and Amarilis Rodriguez graduated from Rutgers University on May 19. Within days they were back in prison.

The pair had already served their time. Lewis had been at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, Rodriguez at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township. Both took college classes while in prison and both, on release, returned to help others.

Lewis and Rodgriquez are part of what’s called the Mountainview program, a state-wide model for recruiting college students, many who are former inmates, to tutor inmates enrolled in NJ-STEP, New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons.

NJ-STEP is a consortium of state colleges and universities that provide college courses to inmates in Department of Corrections-run prisons and assist them, on release, in their transition to college life.

Lewis had a high school diploma in 2005 and had already enrolled in college when he was imprisoned. After college prep courses at Mountainview, he moved into a half-way house and began taking college courses. He returned to tutor in 2012.

Rodriguez also began tutoring in the program in September 2012 with the launch of NJ-STEP. Earlier, she had been in prison for two and a half years. “I do it because I lived it,” she said.

According to Mountainview Administrator Al Kandell, the facility has 17 teachers in its education program and from 10 to 27 academic tutors during any given semester.

Most, but not all, are college students who volunteer for a semester or two to complete community service requirements of participating members of NJ-STEP — Rutgers, Drew, Princeton, the College of New Jersey and Raritan Valley, Essex and Mercer county community colleges.

The tutors also help inmates who don’t have a high school diploma but are taking courses to graduate, and older inmates who have “aged out” and are pursuing a GED.
Kandell said that prisoners at Mountainview include violent predators and gang members.

And while time in prison can move inmates toward crime or toward the positive, education helps turn the bulk of them toward the positive, he said.
Former inmates Lewis and Rodriguez are the wave of the future for corrections officials like Kandell. They’ve shared the prison experience, so they have a lot of credibility. They’re also role models.

As a result of the educational emphasis and some other “holistic” changes Kandell and his team have instituted, there’s been a 50% drop in violence, according to Eddie Weldon, Mountainview assistant superintendent.

When inmates see people like Rodriguez and Lewis return from Rutgers in the NJ-STEP program, Weldon said, they see they have a choice. “They see positive examples. They kind of see themselves in the tutors.”

Having graduated from Rutgers with a 3.7 GPA, Rodriguez hopes to begin graduate study in anthropology at an Ivy League school in 2014. Still, she said, tutoring inmates “is a lifetime extracurricular activity for me.”

Similarly, Lewis intends to continue at Mountainview. “Education can turn people’s lives around. I’m living proof of that,” he said. “I’ll be able to open a lot more doors for other people. That’s why I’m doing it.”

“Education can lead to transformation,” said Jecrois Jean-Baptiste, Mountainview director of education. An inmate receives education, graduates college, comes back to volunteer, he said. “What is significant is the degree of success education brings.”

According to Jean-Baptiste, the program gives inmates “the choice to affiliate with gangs or affiliate with Rutgers.

So the choice is theirs, to do the work and transform their own lives; or live a life of crime.

And we too have a choice: that of making prisons punitive or transformative.

Do you believe the Mountainview program to be worthwhile, or is it a waste of time?