Senate panel votes to make inmates eligible for NJ financial aid
TRENTON — Saying the goal of prison should be rehabilitation, not punishment, state lawmakers advanced a proposal Thursday to make state prison inmates eligible state financial aid programs.
Around 550 prison inmates deemed eligible by the Department of Corrections currently take college courses, though advocates for the program say there are around 200 more who could be eligible if the program was able to reach full capacity.
Those costs are paid through federal Pell Grants and philanthropic funds, with the colleges and universities absorbing some costs. State law currently doesn’t allow inmates to qualify for Tuition Aid Grants, but bill S2055 would change that.
“Sometimes we fall down and we want to get back up, but we need help,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and the bill’s chief sponsor.
“It’s time now for the state to stand up and say these are people who’ve made mistakes in their lives, but these are people who have decided that they’re not going to wallow in self-pity, that they’re not going to continue to make mistakes, but they are going to pick themselves up with a little bit of help and become producing, healthy, happy citizens who demand respect,” Cunningham said.
The bill advanced 4-1. All three Democrats on the committee supported it, while the two Republicans were split – Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, in favor and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, opposed.
“This is not an increase in any way, shape or form to our taxpayers. It’s simply opening up an opportunity to perhaps those that need it the most,” Brown said.
Christopher Agans, acting director of NJ-STEP, a program based at Rutgers-Newark that helps with prison education programs, said a RAND study done last year finds every dollar spent on educating prisoners saves $5 on re-incarceration and policing.
“If you can move the conversation beyond punishment or what people deserve, there’s an easy argument to be made from a fiscal perspective,” Agans said.
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who now runs a prisoner re-entry program in Jersey City, said it’s “aggravating if not almost frustrating” that people behind bars are provided less protection and opportunity than the rest of the population when rehabilitation is preferable and cost-effective.
“Or we can build more jails and it’s at $55,000 a year,” McGreevey said, referencing the average annual cost to incarcerate in inmate in New Jersey. “But we can do that. Nobody has any problem building more prison cells, but God forbid we should educate people. Let’s get tough.”
Boris Franklin, of Highland Park, is now a Rutgers University student but he started his college career while serving 11 years in East Jersey State Prison – which he says was being called "Rahway University" within a year of the program starting.
“Inmates were shouting out of cell windows at other inmates to borrow books and to make copies of articles for them. Guys were arguing on the yard about Marx and Socrates,” Franklin said.
Sheila Meiman, the director of prison education at Raritan Valley Community College, said the program operates 60 to 70 courses a semester through multiple New Jersey colleges.. They’ve conducted several cap-and-gown graduation ceremonies in the prisons, she said, and would like to expand further.
“Our state, our public, everyone will benefit,” Meiman said. “We need workers in New Jersey. We need skilled workers. That’s not going to change. It’s going to increase. We need these people to come back to the community, contribute to the community that they’re in.”