An initiative launched in 2005 by Rutgers professor Donald Roden continues to evolve and offer New Jersey inmates new opportunities for their re-entry into society.

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Roden began assisting inmates at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, which started as tutoring and grew into college coursework, and eventually, working with them to gain admission into Rutgers University upon their release.

The professor began the Mountainview Program alone with virtually no funding, basically by doing everything himself.

Director Christopher Agans said the program really took shape by 2008 with dozens of students being admitted to Rutgers each year. In 2012, they linked up with the NJ STEP prison education initiative to bring in several Garden State community colleges to the program.

"We bridge together both the in-prison education experience with the re-entry side," Agans explained. "(Students) have the Mountainview Program to look forward to as their option to attend their four-year university when they come home."

Students must have a high school diploma or GED, along with an interest in college coursework, to initially qualify. From there, they begin taking classes behind bars en route to an Associates Arts degree.

To qualify for Rutgers, the students must maintain a GPA above 3.0 and complete 15 to 20 community college credits. From there, the application is examined by a judicial review panel before being passed on to Rutgers admissions office.

The results have been staggering.

  • 110 students have been admitted; 25 have earned a bachelor's degree and five have earned a master's degree;
  • The program currently contains more than 40 active students;
  • The average overall GPA is 3.1;
  • Total recidivism rate is 5.3 percent, which is significantly lower than state and national averages;
  • 80 percent of graduates are working full-time or attending graduate school.

Agans said the accepting nature of a college campus, along with the available services, provides a nurturing environment for these students upon release.

They have typically formed a community and looked after each other, acting as ambassadors of the Mountainview Program since it has been instrumental to their lives.

"They want to make sure that it's passed on to the next generation," Agans said.

While majors can range from philosophy to engineering to accounting, the most sought-after is social work since many students want to give back immediately.

"There's a group of these students who immediately want to find ways to give back, find ways to develop their communities, to develop their environment that they came out of, to be agents of change."