September 24, 2018 | ° F

Former inmate transitions to honors student

As a former inmate, School of Arts and Sciences junior Walter Fortson calls prison in New Jersey a hell on earth — a violent, unsanitary and annoying place that is not conducive to life.

Forston recalls how prison can take a psychological toll on those who cannot understand that they do not have control over the world outside.

Inmates were subject to random strip and room searches for the possibility of possessing contraband. The animosity the inmates expressed toward each other frustrated him.

"That more than anything — not wanting to be around those types of people ever again in my life — is a big part of why I wanted to change," Fortson said.

Fortson was convicted in Atlantic County only a few years ago for distributing drugs and was then incarcerated in the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale.

Today, the 25-year-old is an honors student as well as Rutgers McNair scholar, a Rutgers Upward Bound mentor, a Mountainview Project adviser and a member of the NAACP Chapter, among other activities.

"It's like a second chance in life, a second chance in success," Fortson said. "Knowing what the other side looks like is definitely an incentive to try harder because you know how real it could get, you know how bad things can get. Knowing that I never want to go back that route keeps me focused."

Fortson's character today is a direct result of his spiritual growth from his self-reflection in the facility, he said. He thought about what frame of thinking led him there and what needed to be changed.

"Being in that position, when you look at your options, hindsight is always 20-20," Fortson said. "You made a mistake. Any opportunity you can get to make good in a situation, you definitely would like to capitalize on [it]."

A crucial event that helped Fortson become a University student was meeting Donald Roden, a Department of History associate professor, who in 2005 started the Mountainview Project.

The project is a program allowing the University to admit young people who have been incarcerated in New Jersey, said Vicki Brooks, assistant dean for transfer and nontraditional students.

"I realized what he was offering, grabbed it and clenched it as hard as I could," Fortson said. "I tried to make the best out of every single opportunity"

Since the project's inception, Roden helped 39 former inmates become full-time undergraduate students at the University.

His outreach in the facility and personal advocacy motivated inmates, like Fortson.

"[Roden] called my parents and got them excited. He's been corresponding with them through e-mails," Fortson said. "He was just really proactive, advantageous and instrumental in getting me into this more than I could have done for my lack of resources and inability to reach out."

There are currently 27 students involved with the project, said Christopher Agans, acting director of Student Support Services. There will be four more attending next semester.

"I don't want to leave out the rest of the program because we are together as one unit," Fortson said. "We are all striving with the same goal and the same intention, same motivations. I think that all of us all together collectively are just trying our hardest."

The students in the program are highly praised by the staff that works closely with them. They are polite, respectful and conscientious, said Brooks, an academic adviser who sometimes meets with the students up to four times a month.

"If your typical student is focused, many of them are more because they know the opportunity they have been given," Brooks said. "They want to take advantage of it. They don't want to waste their time.  Therefore they want to be sure every moment is spent doing something positive for themselves."

Like Brooks, Agans has witnessed how the former inmates are wholly invested in pursuing an education.

"They are engaged.  It is a much more urgent process for them," Agans said. "They're sitting up in front of the class. They're meeting with their professor in their office hours. They're really happy to be here."

Some of the students in the Mountainview Project attend the University after they are released from the facility, Brooks said.

Some of them then go to a halfway house, called the Kintock House in Newark, and they commute from that house to school until they are released, Agans said.

When Roden started the program in the summer of 2005, a number of University faculty members became involved, he said.

"Those colleagues say these students show a lot of potential, this student can actually earn a degree if given the opportunity," he said. "We go in and interview them, and we screen them for a lot of things — we actually see if they are a good fit."

Roden has been visiting the facility since 2002, after his mother passed away, Agans said. She worked on reading and literacy programs in community centers in Milwaukee.

Since he started visiting Mountainview, Roden worked as an academic tutor and teacher.

After he learned that within the facility inmates were able to attain their GEDs and college credit from county colleges, Roden wanted to connect the inmates to the University.

"I'm very proud of [the students] overall.  They're doing an excellent job. I'm thrilled with their achievements," Roden said. "The students seem to get stronger within each year."

Reena Diamante

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