The Iliad is doing hard time – and the inmates love it

By Christopher Zoukis

Maximum-security inmates at a New Jersey prison have been learning about the literary world with Rutgers University associate professor Emily Allen-Hornblower. But the novelty isn’t that they are studying literature, or even that they are doing it behind bars.

It’s what they are learning about that’s so impressive. Prisoners at East Jersey State, formerly Rahway State Prison, are devouring The Classics – the The Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh and many other literary heavyweights.

Allen-Hornblower, who also recently taught Western Civilization at Northern State Prison, shares her love of heroic epics because she believes students identify with the main characters – who often have complex, troubled lives.

As such, the characters’ adventures serve a as springboard for frank discussions about the complex issues that the prisoners have dealt with in their own lives, and the struggles of positive and negative influences. In essays about the books they’ve written, the inmates share their thoughts about the consequences of their actions in life, and discover a new connection to the past, present and future – regardless of race, gender, or other circumstances.

The classes help prisoners inspect and explore the larger picture of their lives.

Inmates do not just have the opportunity to study classics and other humanities subjects. The Education Department of East Jersey State Prison offers a wide variety of programs to inmates including vocational programs such as mechanics, culinary arts, and horticulture, as well as primary education and GED courses, and other college level classes.

Allen-Hornblower isn’t the only professor who is teaching in prisons in New Jersey. She is one of many academics participating as part of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP), which is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to provide higher education courses to those who are incarcerated and, importantly, assist in the transition to college life after their release into the community.

There are currently nine participating institutions, including Rutgers and Princeton, offering courses in seven different facilities. Besides the academic courses offered, the NJ-STEP program also includes re-entry support programs including academic counsellors and admissions officers, that help prisoners plan for release and help get them accepted into colleges after, helping to ensure continued success.

The programs are clearly successful, offering inmates the opportunity to learn new skills, think about their futures, provide a positive social network, and goes a long way to reducing recidivism. Programs like this are so important when 95% of prisoners in the state will be ultimately be released, and it is important to prepare them for what happens next.

Officials at NJ-STEP and Mountainview, a continuation program at Rutgers, say that only a small handful of program participants return to prison. The academics that participate as teachers also see huge personal benefits, and count the participants as the best students they’ve ever had. They are thirsty for knowledge, want to better their lives, and are really committed to the work.

NJ-STEP and Mountainview are just two great example of successful models of what prisons should be as part of America’s goal to reduce rampant recidivism and incarceration rates.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com