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Helping former inmates rejoin society

By Kaitlyn Njoroge
Correspondent

The Chi Upsilon Sigma chapter of the National Latino Sorority and the Peer Pride Mentoring Program on campus brought Terrell Blount, a former inmate and Rutgers graduate, to the College on Monday, Oct. 20, to speak with students and faculty about re-entry resources for prisoners and to share his life story.

The lecture began with showing a scene from “Fool Me Once,” an episode in the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” in which a recent re-entry inmate, Taystee, explains how hard life is on the outside after being released from prison. Blount agreed that life for prisoners post-release is difficult, saying it’s almost impossible to find jobs or a place to live with a criminal record and a sixth grade reading level — the average level at which New Jersey inmates can read.

According to Blount, 65 percent of the prison population in New Jersey serve minimum sentences, with 56 percent serving less than five-year sentences. When inmates are released from prison, they are often placed in transitional houses located mostly in Newark and Camden for approximately a year. At the same time, they are expected to work in order to be able to leave when the year ends. However, 70 percent of the money earned goes toward house fees, which leaves former inmates unprepared to become financially stable. Some house owners do not encourage the pursuit of education in their first year, either, due to the fact that former inmates need all the money they can spare to pay toward the house. The situation contributes to the lack of both education and money for former inmates.

These circumstances are what Blount wants to change. As a former inmate himself, education opportunities offered inside the prison are what helped turn his life around.

“I see prison education as an eye opener which helped me to see the world around me,” Blount said.

Before taking college classes, Blount said he “was blind” to the power of education. In prison, he was only exposed to business classes that focused on how to own a business, a subject he wasn’t interested in at all. After meeting the Dean at Rutgers University at 24, he enrolled as a freshman, graduating four years later with a double major in Communication and African American studies.

However, not every former inmate is as fortunate. As an activist for prison reform, Blount works at NJ-STEP, a program which provides post-secondary education for those in prison. Inmates enrolled in the program are able to take classes ranging from Japanese studies to linguistics in order to earn liberal arts credits. Those in the program can maintain a set of credits to be transferred to any college in the state and further their educational careers.

The realization of how hard it is for some people to receive an education hit home for many members of the audience.

Financially, the college courses offered in the NJ-STEP program are free, and the books are provided by both professors and the Bill Gates Foundation. Through NJ-STEP, Blount helps inmates receive as many grants as possible for college entry. There are also re-entry case managers that teach workplace etiquette and help create inmate resumes. Essex County College also offers free courses to former inmates with 0 to 9 credits, providing everything but housing.

Blount ended his speech by telling the audience how to distinguish between “passion and interest.” He believes that in order to thrive in society, people must discover what they love to do. Otherwise, it is “so easy to be tricked into pursuing your interest and not your passion,” Blount said.

Being passionate about helping inmates pursue higher education allows Blount to perform his job at full potential. His enthusiasm serves as motivation for student volunteers like freshman sociology major Yuleisy Ortez. She explained how important it is to her to, “help people better themselves and have a brighter future.”

Blount believes above all that people have an obligation to help the less fortunate receive an education — by doing so, the world may change for the better.

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