Four presenters sit at the front of the room, acknowledging an eager audience while wearing fluorescent orange jumpsuits. The speakers are escorted by two police officers who look on as they tell the story of their incarceration.
The last names of currently incarcerated individuals were omitted to protect their privacy.
The first speaker was Nicole, a young woman whose mother had struggled with alcoholism. At just 12 years old, Nicole’s mother passed away and she began self-medicating with drugs.
Nicole also experienced bullying throughout high school, which exacerbated her struggle with substance abuse. She shared that she had aspirations to attend an Ivy League university and become a lawyer. Unfortunately, her life changed one night when a verbal altercation turned fatal.
“It was just one bad choice after another,” Nicole said. “I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. People were trying to pull me back up, but I thought it was no big deal. I couldn’t see what was ahead.”
Montclair State University’s Petey Greene Program (MSUPGP) hosted four minimum custody inmates through Project Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education (PRIDE) to support its mission of increasing access to education and learning resources within jails, prisons and detention centers. Project PRIDE is a state initiative run by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC).
Another inmate, Lissette, grew up with parents that were struggling with substance abuse. She was a straight A student, with dreams of becoming a counselor and helping kids like her. By high school she was juggling school on top of supporting her son as a single mother.
Eventually Lissette dropped out, becoming more involved in the street life she was trying to avoid. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a robbery she purportedly didn’t commit, sharing that the friend she regularly allowed to borrow her car had accused her to earn a plea bargain.
Looking back, Lissette believes the people she surrounded herself with drastically impacted the course of her life. She implored members of the audience to seek out individuals that have common interests and make plans for the future.
This sentiment was echoed by Angela Kellam, Project PRIDE’s coordinator. She believes every person should be encouraged to set goals.
“If you’re always working to attain something, you’re going to be focused on that thing that you want so badly,” Kellam said. “That’s why we can’t just say, ‘Don’t do drugs,’ without also talking about that foundation of who you’re around and what you want to do with your life.”
Growing up, Jack struggled to acclimate socially and turned to alcohol and narcotics to lower his inhibitions. Eventually, he began selling drugs to support his own habit.
As a freshman in college, Jack was arrested for distribution of LSD. While on bail he attended AA meetings, eventually getting clean and becoming a mentor for other members struggling with substance abuse. He was seven months sober before his sentencing date, but unfortunately his progress was not enough to deter jail time.
Jack shared that he now realizes he was using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with underlying mental illness.
“I was getting high my whole life,” Jack said. “I didn’t know how to deal with emotions at the time. All I knew to do was get high.”
Edwin’s family was involved in gang activity and exposed him to alcohol at an early age. In order to provide support to his children, he dropped out of high school and started working.
His story took a dark turn the night that he proposed to his fiance. What was expected to be a celebratory evening turned deadly due to a drunk driving accident.
Edwin was behind the driver’s seat and sustained life-threatening injuries. The entire room held back tears as he informed the audience that his fiance didn’t make it.
Going forward, Edwin hopes to honor her memory by continuing to make the right choices and spread awareness through Project PRIDE.
“I think of her the moment that my eyes open in the morning, and she’s the last thing I think about before I fall asleep every night,” Edwin said. “This could happen to anyone that’s intoxicated behind the wheel.”
Nawal Farih, a junior psychology major, shared the emotional impact the presentation had on her.
“All your stories have me crying,” Farih said. “I’m bawling my eyes out and I’m not sure how you’re able to do this.”
MSUPGP hopes this event will encourage the Montclair State community to consider the importance of education and recognize the importance of increasing access to all members of the community. The MSUPGP chapter tutors inmates in Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey by preparing them for the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), an exam that tests for proficiency consistent with graduating high school seniors.
President of MSUPGP Koedi Shakir shared the positive outcomes of volunteering time as a tutor.
“Through this mutually beneficial opportunity, incarcerated students receive educational assistance, which will ultimately assist them in contributing positively in society post-release,” Shakir said. “Tutors acquire skills that can help re-imagine the criminal justice system and further them in their careers upon graduation.”
Shakir is also a first-grade student teacher at Oakwood Avenue Community School in Orange, which has given her more insight into the value of education.
“I have witnessed first-hand the kind of opportunity education can provide and I want to share that experience with students in my classroom.” Shakir said. “I believe knowledge is power, and people can take away materialistic belongings from you, such as your phone, your favorite pair of shoes or even your house, but no one can take away your education.”
Students interested in supporting MSUPGP’s mission of increasing access to education can attend their many events throughout the semester. An information session on becoming a tutor will be offered April 2 in the Center for Environmental and Life Sciences in room 207.