Student organization helps prisoners succeed

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Photo by © Bob Strong / Reuters |

The exterior of Camp Delta is seen at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Bob Strong


Rutgers is contributing in the move to repair the American criminal justice system with the Mountainview Project Student Organization (MVP-SO), a social action student organization working on the issue of prison reform.

The Mountainview Project works with at-risk youth and inmates through direct contact by mentoring, tutoring, conducting seminars and providing alternative opportunities to promote the pursuit of higher education. They raise awareness of the possibility and benefits of successful ex-felon reform, according to their website.

Donald Roden, an associate professor in the Department of History, founded the project in 2004 when he taught at a local prison called Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility. 

His goal was for the young men and women to be admitted to Rutgers following their release, said Adham El-sherbeini, a School of Engineering senior and MVP president.

In 2011, a group of students founded the Mountainview Project Student Organization, he said.

The organization has grown since, he said. It is especially relevant today in the effort to tackle mass incarceration in the U.S.

The U.S. incarcerates more citizens than any other nation in the world, according to CNN.

MVP-SO tackles the issue of mass-incarceration through education by teaching youth in hopes that they do not go to prison, El-sherbeini said.

The organization also educates current and former prisoners in hopes that they do not return to prison, he said. They also educate society about the effects of prison in hopes of inspiring change in a broken criminal justice system.

He said the project's current initiatives include the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, a program where students tutor currently incarcerated men and women at local prisons to help them achieve their General Education Development certificate (GED) and high school diplomas to help them be more successful upon their release.

Project P.R.I.D.E. (Promoting Responsibility In Drug Education) is another initiative reducing recidivism through public speaking to members of the community about the effects of decision making under drugs and alcohol, according to their website.

University students can help the project grow by introducing people who have been or are incarcerated and would like to pursue higher education through their Referral Program. They will be guided through the process of applying for admission to the University, according to their Facebook page.

The project is also working on Rutgers Upward Bound Program, which is geared toward first generation, low-income students from Plainfield, Piscataway and New Brunswick in efforts to prepare them for college, according to the page.

Members are working on a campaign to urge University students to divest from private prisons and are raising awareness on campus about mass-incarceration and the effects it has on individuals, families and communities, El-sherbeini said.

“The Mountainview Project has proven education to be a very effective way to combat mass incarceration,” he said. “The percentage of its students who return to prison is extremely low compared to the percentage of people in New Jersey who return to prison after their release.”

President Barack Obama visited Rutgers—Newark to speak about prison reform and re-entry programs for former prisoners, issues Rutgers has worked on for years on the campus, according to The Daily Targum.

Obama has made prison reform his priority for the remaining time in office. The goal is fairness and creating job opportunities for ex-cons, according to CNN.

Obama’s visit was the culmination of important scholarship by Rutgers students and faculty and acknowledgment of Rutgers' criminal justice field, according to the Targum.

Shadd Maruna, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University—Newark, said U.S. prison sentences are outrageously and needlessly long.

"As President Obama said on his visit to Rutgers University—Newark last week, (the) United States is vastly out of step with other countries in the developed world when it comes to sentencing,” he said.

The benefits in terms of deterrence or incapacitation are vastly outweighed by the costs not only to taxpayers, state budgets, prisoners and their families, but also to society as a whole, he said.

“As just one example, we are spending huge sums to incapacitate elderly individuals, long past the time when they pose any threat to anyone, for crimes committed in their youth, perhaps in a moment of passion,” Maruna said.

In almost every case, the country could achieve the same goals – deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation – with dramatically reduced and even non-institutional sentences in line with courts in Europe, Canada, Japan and much of the world, he said.

He said America's overly long sentences impact families of every racial and ethnic background, but there is no question among scholars that America's long-standing racial issues are one of the key factors in explaining the nation's uniquely punitive sentencing practices.

Maruna said the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University–Newark is strongly supportive of the important activism and outreach that MVP is doing at Rutgers.

“One of my goals as dean has been to try to mobilize student activists like those in the Mountainview group to join the field of criminology where their energy and passion is badly needed, and where they can make a real difference on these issues from an evidence-based perspective,” he said.

Elizabeth Binstein, a School of Social Work junior, said she volunteers to tutor at prisons through MVP-SO.

She said she is interested in the industrial complex and breaking the cycle of imprisonment.

“If I have the option of using the knowledge I already have to help someone change his or her life, I feel that there is no reason I would not take this opportunity,” she said.


Noa Halff

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