Photo by @scw1217 on Unsplash

Most inmates in prisons — including here at East Jersey State Prison (EJSP) in Rahway, N.J. — don’t have much to look forward to besides the dawn of a sad new day in which their mundane existences centered around trips to the mess hall or to the yard to workout. But Timothy Miller is not one of them. 

Thanks to his personal pursuit of self-rehabilitation and the NJ-STEP prison college program, he wakes up in a great frame of mind. This summer he completed his last assignment for his cultural geography class, and he is looking forward to registering for next semester. 

Like many others, Tim was lured by the streets, which led to his crime and subsequent incarceration. However, he was adamant about not letting his past define his future. In addition to his burgeoning faith in God, he shed all nicknames that identified him with his past life and is wholeheartedly pursuing his education. 

Men like Tim have significantly changed the atmosphere around the prison. It is not uncommon to see one inmate explaining his understanding of existentialism to another, or to witness someone just smiling rather than reacting rashly when officers challenge them about whether inmates can really change. 

“The question is, ‘What do you do when your co-defendant’s son kills your son or nephew and is now in the same prison with you?’ Your fear becomes that they are probably going to do something to you before you get the chance to seek revenge and do something to them,” said one incarcerated person at EJSP who prefers to remain anonymous. “But when they see that you are more interested in pursuing a college degree… there is a good chance that the escalation of a bad situation can be avoided.” 

The person added, “For years we did not realize how seriously our prison sentences were affecting our families until our sons started coming to prison.”

Unfortunately, the parole board does not seem to recognize the efforts inmates are making to transform themselves. One individual who recently faced the board said the panel focused on his criminal past and barely mentioned the efforts he had made to rehabilitate himself. He felt like the board thought that men like him were just gaming the system to be paroled. 

However, in the case of Marvin Spears, nobody can label his efforts of rehabilitation as disingenuous since he does not have to appear before the parole board prior to his release. 

A summa cum laude graduate of Rutgers University through the NJ-STEP program, Marvin got his B.A. in social justice in 2019. He has been working for more than a decade to set up a non-profit organization that he plans to run when he gets out to give kids an opportunity to learn how to run a business. 

He knows that boys in his hometown of Irvington, N.J., dream more about walking the halls of East Jersey State Prison rather than those of Princeton University. It is his hope that by encouraging the youth to interact with positive role models, their dreams would shift from becoming gang leaders to becoming corporate tycoons.

 

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

M. Yayah Sandi

M. Yayah Sandi is a writer at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, N.J., where he is serving a 25-year sentence. He requested that his first name be withheld.