Former prisoners push for inmate education
Terrell Blount is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in communication. He sits in the front row of his classes and commutes from Newark.
He is also a convicted felon.
Blount was incarcerated at the age of 18 and served a six-year sentence for robbery charges before enrolling at the University in 2008 through the Mountainview Program (MVP), which transitions offenders from correctional facilities to formal education institutions to keep them from returning to prison.
“Getting arrested was the best thing and the worst thing that happened to me,” he said.
The 27-year-old, who is on parole until 2014, said committing robbery actually saved him because he never would have attended the University otherwise.
“While I was in a halfway house, I wanted to pursue my education,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about the program but was amazed [to learn] that I had the opportunity to go to Rutgers.”
The University currently enrolls 34 students from the program, from which five have already graduated with degrees, said Walter Fortson, chair of Rutgers MVP — a group organized by students enrolled through the program.
Fortson said the enrollment program allows a select number of convicted felons to attend the University after serving their sentences.
“The program started as a special admissions program for ex-offenders who demonstrated a high level of academic potential to pursue or attempt to pursue a professional degree at this University,” he said.
More than 50 students attended the group’s first meeting last night at the Cook Campus Center to learn about the group’s initiatives to create more chances to educate convicted felons.
Fortson presented four initiatives Rutgers MVP is trying to implement, all of which involve educating incarcerated individuals or those in low-income areas.
“We felt we’d be remiss not to turn around, reach back into the system and continue to pull more people out,” he said.
The event presented a video on the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, which allows students to go to correctional facilities and tutor convicts.
Fortson said another initiative was Project P.R.I.D.E., a New Jersey Department of Corrections program to educate youth about choices involving drugs and alcohol.
He also introduced the Rutgers Upward Bound program, which provides tutoring to low-income students to prepare them for college.
“More than 70 percent of convicts don’t have a GED,” he said. “There is a large correlation with incarceration and the [lack of] education.”
Natalie Twerdowsky, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, thought the program’s goals were well directed.
“Education is the root to any type of change, any type of reform,” she said.
Twerdowsky, a criminal justice major, was excited about the group’s initiatives.
“I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time,” she said. “This is what I want to do.”
Jonathan Wewer, parliamentarian of Rutgers MVP and a former convicted felon, said students who come through the program are generally better students compared to the rest of the University population.
“We have a higher GPA, we have a higher attendance rate, and we always sit in the first row of the class and raise our hands,” he said.
As a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, Fortson said he was glad to have the opportunity and grabbed on to it as soon as he could. He carries a 3.92 GPA.
“Before I was incarcerated I was a business major at Temple [University],” he said. “Then I dropped out of school and landed myself in a bunch of trouble, and when I was presented with the opportunity I came running through these doors as fast I could.”