They Say I Gotta Learn, But Nobody’s Here to Teach Me

Recently, I was presented with an employment opportunity that was simply too good to pass up. Starting Monday, I will be starting my position as an adjunct professor with Salem Community College teaching two courses of developmental English…

…to inmates at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, NJ.

This is through the program known as NJ-STEP (Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison) which is designed to offer inmates the opportunity to earn either a two- or four-year degree while they serve out their sentence. Statistically speaking, inmates who take just one college course while behind bars are 46% less likely to return to prison.

I have long believed that the “corrections” part of “Department of Corrections” was vastly underutilized. Without some manner of program designed to help inmates better themselves, educate themselves, and learn how to make better choices to stay on the proper side of the law, not only are we as a society doing nothing to rehabilitate the inmates, but we are also essentially throwing humans in a cage for a pre-determined amount of time where they often learn nothing about becoming contributing members of society.

NJ-STEP is designed to change that. The United States has the largest number of incarcerated individuals of any country on the planet. Obviously, the mere existence of prisons and the threat of jail time is in and of itself not enough of a deterrent to prevent people from breaking the law. People will commit crimes. I have. You have. We either haven’t risen to the level of criminal activity to warrant prosecution or we have managed to avoid getting caught (speeding is a crime, driving without a seatbelt is a crime…) and sentenced to jail. But should we be – or, worse, should we be convicted of a crime we did not commit – I would be thankful to be in a prison that participates in STEP.

Once their sentences are served, they will have paid their debts to society. They will be free men and women, and will deserve a second chance at a legal life. STEP will help those interested parties to do so.

And I will be a part of it.

I had no idea, when I signed up for this, that I would be considered a pioneer. At the introductory luncheon yesterday, I was informed that this is the first program of its kind in our part of the state. As well, while there are several other states that have similar programs, STEP is apparently considered the best in the country and is the model to which other programs look. I am getting in on the ground floor of a movement that may very well change the way that our nation treats those prisoners who can be rehabilitated.

Our orientation yesterday was eye-opening. It was not my first time visiting a prison – our dog came from the New Leash on Life program which partners inmates with unadoptable dogs and prepares them both for civilized life – but it was my first time staying in one for an extended period.

I was not prepared for the smell, though in hindsight I should have been. There are 3400 male inmates at South Woods, in the scent is unmistakable. It smells like caged men. Picture the gymnasium after a wrestling match, and now add in the piquant odor of the locker room afterwards, and you’ve got a fraction of the olfactory assault. South Woods is not an old facility – it was built in 1997 – but it doesn’t take long, I suppose, for such a miasma to become imbued in the bricks.

Our group of twelve – three professors, our superior, two educational administrators, and seven STEP representatives – met with the Student Advisory Panel within the prison walls. Made up entirely of inmates in the program, this advisory panel did their damnedest to not only assuage our doubts and fears about working on the inside, but also to challenge any preconceived notions and prejudices we may or may not have been harboring about inmates in general.

I’m terrible with names, and could not possibly enumerate all of them here. But Jose, Geraldo, Jameel, Shane, Prince and Tim do stick out. The were welcoming, they were friendly, they were erudite (Jameel used the word “inculcate” in the normal course of conversation; who does that?)…

…they were obviously not going to be students of mine, unfortunately. They were obviously well-educated – far beyond the developmental state – and, if they were at all representative of the calibre of students, then my fears indeed are assuaged. What they lack in education they make up for in tenacity and enthusiasm. They have a drive and an eagerness to learn, because they know what’s at stake. They know that the odds are heavily stacked against them, and – statistically speaking – they are likely to return to prison if their lives do not drastically change. And they want that change. All of the prospective students do.

I am, of course, understandably nervous. I, like you, have my own preconceptions and prejudices about prisoners, due largely, no doubt, to my upbringing. But I’ve tried my damnedest to overcome a number of other prejudices to which I was exposed, so why should this be any different?

I have the opportunity to make a very real difference here. It isn’t exactly what I set out to do when I entered grad school, but that’s fine by me. Opportunities like this are rare. Opportunities to actually do good, to actively try to change the world, come along maybe once in a lifetime.

So, Monday. New job. New opportunity. New chance to make a difference.

Now I just have to learn how to teach…

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About Joseph F. Berenato

Joseph F. Berenato obtained a B.A. in English and spent four years as the entertainment editor of The Hammonton Gazette before returning to his roots at his family's blueberry farm in Hammonton, NJ. In 2014, Joe conceived, edited, and contributed to New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics. In addition to The Sacred Scrolls: Comics on the Planet of the Apes, he co-edited two Star Wars volumes for Sequart with Rich Handley, with a third in the works. Joe wrote the introduction for IDW Publishing's Star Trek: Gold Key Archives Volume 3 as well as retrospective essays for that company’s Star Trek #50 and their forthcoming Gold Key 100-Page Spectacular. He also contributed to ATB Publishing's Star Trek anthology Outside In Boldly Goes. He holds a Master of Arts in Writing from Rowan University, and is adjunct professor with Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, NJ, where he teaches freshman composition and serves as advisor for the school’s newspaper, the Atlantic Cape Review.
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2 Responses to They Say I Gotta Learn, But Nobody’s Here to Teach Me

  1. I could NOT do what you’re going to be doing. I just know I’d never be able to handle it. So many props to you.

  2. Katie Budris says:

    Agreed with Jason – I could never. But what an amazing program, and so cool to be a part of it from the beginning. Best of luck!

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