Inmates at county jail in Kearny join DeGise and Reber in touting new associate’s degree program

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Inmates at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny joined County Executive Tom DeGise and Hudson County Community College President Dr. Christopher Reber in touting a new associate’s degree program for the incarcerated.

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County

“We’ve long heard that it costs as much to warehouse a person in jail as it does to send them to college. It seems a lot smarter to actually provide people who want to turn their lives around with the post-secondary classes they need to do that while in jail,” DeGise said at today’s press event.

“We decided our community college’s outreach and the way it touches the community was perfectly suited for this,” adding Reber was in favor of the program from the beggining.

Launched in September, the program provided community college classes to 20 students during the fall 2021 semester.

The program allows qualified inmates to earn their Associate’s Degree or certification in a range of employment-focused concentrations of study.

This makes the Corrections & Rehabilitation Center the first county jail in New Jersey (and perhaps in the nation) to offer degree programs to those in custody, county officials said.

About half the individuals enrolled in the Academic Workforce Pathway Program are participating in this degree track.

The program also provides a Workforce Skills Development Training track that offers basic computer skills, essential business software, supply chain management, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Students in the program, both degree and non-degree, will be assisted with a life-skills training program that Hudson County Community College provides in partnership with the non-profit Women Rising.

The total cost for the first year, two-semester program is $150,000. Funding was provided through a Hudson County Reentry Grant.

“I’m a teacher 25 years at Snyder high school,” DeGise said, noting his great belief in the power of education.

He noted his daughter Linda went to Hudson County Community College.

“I know that sometimes it’s hard to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and keep on going there, but you fellas have shown you’re up to the task,” DeGise said.

“Offering programs that promote upward social and economic mobility is at the very core of Hudson County Community College’s mission. This is the gateway to an opportunity to change,” added Reber.

“We on the faculty and staff are absolutely committed to supporting you, to working with you, to providing the opportunities that are going to make a difference for you.”

Reber said they’re eligible for pell grants to continue their education once they are released from jail.

“Financial barriers will not be a barrier for you. I’ll be here to make sure you can stay enrolled,” he added.

Hudson County Commissioner Jerry Walker (D-3) also threw his support behind the initiative.

“The scourge of mass incarceration has to be addressed in a range of ways and this is surely one we needed to pursue,” he stated.

He sponsored the resolution that created and approved the Academic Workforce Pathway Program funding.

“The tragedy is that so many people who get caught up in the criminal justice system are trapped in a cycle that they cannot break caused by poverty due to a lack of education,” explained County Commissioner Anthony Romano (D-5), who seconded the resolution to create the program.

“We have the resources to change lives, strengthen our community and in the process save taxpayer dollars over time,” emphasize County Commissioner Bill O’Dea (D-2).

Outgoing Jail Director Ron Edwards, whose retiring at the end of the year, also applauded the progressive initiative.

“For decades, we did nothing to rehabilitate the offenders committed to our authority. Now you’re students, scholars. The world is in your hands. Make the most of it,” Edward said.

“Don’t stop at your Associate’s Degree. Go for your bachelor’s. After your bachelor’s, go for your master’s.”

“I started in corrections and started seeing that I could easily have been on this side.

He explained his father was an alcoholic while his mother was addicted to prescription medicine. Thus, he dropped out of high school in 9th grade and only went back to complete his education later.

“I started at Hudson County Community College. You think you guys know fear? Sit in a classroom with your daughter. That’s fear.”

“I want them to reach their true value because I’m pretty sure they have the same story I just shared,” he said.

20 students are currently in the program, including inmate Bahsil Marsh.

“I’m tired of heading into a brick wall. I want change for myself. I don’t want to be another statistic of another young Black man coming into jail and going back out there and not accomplishing anything.”

He is interested in pursuing a career as a producer and director tapping into creativity and interest in graphic design and dance.

Additionally, Leon Foster said he wanted to pursue a career in human services upon his release from jail and graduation.

“When I graduate, I want to help out people the way they were helping me,” he said.

Furthermore, Laurie Margolin, associate vice president for continuing education and workforce development at HCCCC, explained that all the students were enrolled this fall in a course on student success to learn survival skills and navigate the system.

They’re taking either a public speaking class or an introduction to computers class that includes learning Microsoft Word and Excel.

All took a class offered by Women Rising that provides life skills and basic employability skills.

Classes done virtually can continue education once they’re released from college. Margolin said they would help them obtain a computer to do so.

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic is we have become really good at this virtual modality,” she said.

Organizations involved in the Academic Workforce Pathway Program’s partnership include Hudson County Community College, the Hudson County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Hudson County Department of Housing and Community Reintegration, the Hudson County/Jersey City Workforce Development Board, the Hudson County Economic Development Corporation, and Women Rising.

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