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Chris Etienne Wants More from Education in Prison Programs

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Chris Etienne graduated at the top of his class at Rutgers and went on to earn a masters in documentary journalism from one of the top journalism programs in the world. He still couldn’t find a job in his field. Now, as the STEM program coordinator of the Prison Teaching Initiative at Princeton University, Chris works tirelessly to enhance both educational and professional opportunities for individuals who are justice-impacted. In a recent interview, Chris charted his path through the education system and discussed what education-in-prison programs need to provide to enable full success of their scholars.


I didn’t start my education in NJ-STEP. I was in Kintock, a halfway house located in Newark, New Jersey, when I heard that Essex County Community College was taking applicants. So, I went to Essex County and took the placement test. I did well enough for them to accept me in their community college program.


I knew that I wanted to be a journalist, but I was just taking my Gen Ed requirements at the time. I had math classes to get through, expository writing, different aspects of reading and research. I took a psychology class and world history. All of those were just, hopefully, a prerequisite for my journalism career.


I started at Essex County Community College – but after my release from Kintock I lived in Matawan with my sister, which was far from Newark. I ended up transferring to Brookdale/Lincroft, which was very different. It was like a community college for rich white kids who were being “forced” to go to college by their parents. Many were very affluent people! And when it came to classes, some of them did well, some seemed like they were passionate. But most of them were like, “I just need to get a degree to get the old folks off my back.” So whereas At Essex County Community College, it was like “This is my only shot at redemption,” at Brookdale it was like, “I’m basically here for the hell of it. I don’t need to be here. But I guess it would be okay to have a piece of paper that says I’m better than some people in society.” It wasn’t a make or break thing. They were already making more than I would make at any job I could get after college – before they even received an associate’s degree.


My second semester there, I heard from Dr. Donald Roden, who started the Mountainview program at Rutgers University. I met him while I was in prison, and he followed up with me and my family members regularly via phone call or email. During my second semester in community college Dr. Roden invited me to come to Rutgers and sit down with the current students, and answer questions. They were curious about the major I wanted to pursue and what I sought to achieve post-incarceration. I almost messed up the interview, because at that time I thought I was going to fail an English class. They were a little worried because of just how rigorous Rutgers is when it comes to research and writing. So at first it was looking like I might have blown my shot. But then I called Dr. Roden and said, “You know that class I told you I might be failing? I think I’ve got a B in it…” So I was able to attend Rutgers.


I received my Bachelor’s at Rutgers in 2015, where I double-majored in Journalism and Africana Studies. I graduated at the top of my class in Africana Studies with 3.9 GPA, and in Journalism I had a 3.4. I graduated summa cum laude, and they gave me the Paul Robeson Award, which is the highest award you can receive in the Africana Studies department.


After that, I decided that, as a journalist, the only way I would be taken seriously was to show that I could stand toe to toe with the elite. So in 2015, I transitioned into Columbia University, where I would earn my Masters in documentary journalism.


I want to say, during this trek, I was arrested several times. I was arrested in my sophomore year because I was homeless, and you can’t be homeless and on parole or probation. I was working full time, and I was going to school, and I was on the Dean’s List. It’s just that I didn’t have a place to sleep. It was an issue for me staying with my sister, because I was on parole, and the father of her children attempted to live there too. You can’t have two people on parole under one roof. I was arrested again in my junior year because I failed to produce urine in front a judge. So, I was held in the county jail for thirty days because I could not produce a urine sample on command, even though I never really had a problem with addiction and wasn’t using any drugs. I had to have the NJ-STEP executive director and Dr. Roden write letters on my behalf to my teachers, letting them know I was not dropping out of their class.


A lot of advocates and people in the financial aid office found ways to help me navigate. I’d tell them, “Look, I can’t make rent. I’m not splitting with anyone, and I’m coming up short because it’s difficult for me to take 18 credits and work 40 hours a week, to actually come up on rent.” The financial aid person helped me figure out ways to maneuver through. She said, “Wow, you have a high GPA – there’s actually a scholarship for people who have high GPAs like yours, and this is how much money you could get.” And “You should apply for this scholarship and that scholarship. You would have a chance, with your background, to get that.”


I also had family members that bailed me out. I had people from the block. Those were the people who gave me the money to take the placement test for Columbia. Because that test cost nearly a thousand dollars. I had people who helped me pay rent. I even had people open their doors for me, and let me sleep on their couch.


Although I was ecstatic to attend Columbia, I felt out of place there. I didn’t feel like I had anyone on my side there. I was the most depressed I ever was in my life there, because it was an environment that I felt wasn’t receptive to people of color.


Even after grad school, I had to live in a space where everybody was full-fledged addicts. We called it a crack house, but I’m trying not to use derogatory terminology. But I was sleeping there after grad school. I had no space; no one wanted to hire me. I either didn’t have enough experience, or my resume made it look like I was coming for their job. And so it was just crazy to me: Like, Wow, I really did all of this just to end back at square one, sleeping in a space where addicts are fighting to secure their next hit.


I got through it by working at jobs that underpaid me severely. With a masters, I was making under $25,000 a year, working 18-hour shifts at a house for troubled youth. Luckily, I had a few people I went to college with that were willing to go in on an apartment. A lot of these higher education in prison programs are finally coming to the realization that they need to secure jobs for their graduates. Unfortunately in 2015, 2016, 2017, if you didn’t make that right contact before you graduated, you were on your own.


Many of these higher ed in prison programs, they want to parade people around, the people who are able to actually make it out and transition to education, and earn their bachelor’s and earn their masters. They do that a lot. And I’m happy to give them that kind of publicity. But don’t stop at the publicity. Give your scholars opportunities!


The majority of people who are funding these programs, who are working behind the scenes, they’re very privileged. They come from spaces of privilege. Reach into your networks! Create spaces for more people like us to work. Now we’re starting to see significant change. But at that time it wasn’t the case. And still today, we have large segments of justice-impacted college graduates who are struggling financially and are unable to secure stable housing.


I think you consider yourself a higher ed in prison program, or an organization that supports justice-impacted people, you need to ask, “How far does our support go? Are we just focused on getting our students a degree?” Because there are a lot of social issues that pile up on us, and they compound after we’re released. Are you focused on helping us through those social issues as well?


If you sit down and study the prison pipeline statistics, you realize that almost 20% of the population of students in inner city schools suffer from some kind of learning disability that goes undiagnosed. That same 20% that suffers from those learning disabilities are more likely to drop out of school. Those students with learning disabilities end up in prison. And they end up in prison working backwards trying to figure out education.


The neighborhoods that a significant number of our scholars hail from lack the opportunities our scholars need to secure some form of upward mobility. So right now, we have individuals who found this passion for school and want to focus on education, but it’s difficult to stay on this pathway when you have to transition back to the same community.


I want to tell people going through the higher education process now, “Make those connections. Make connections with individuals that are helping to launch these programs, and constantly reach out to them.” And I feel like, Yeah, that’s a good space to go. But then a lot of these programs are so understaffed, and so highly in demand, it’s not a promise you’re going to be able to make it through.


I want to also say that if you’re having an issue, get in contact with those individuals and advocate for yourself. But then you have people from different communities, and they don’t even have mass transit to take them to the closest college. What if they live in a rural state? How are they supposed to navigate that? Are they going to take on a six-mile walk to get to class? How’s that supposed to work?


I want to say be diligent. Be hopeful, be passionate, and continue to pursue your goal. But how about the people who have families, who are automatically given the role of bread-winner when they come back home? How are they supposed to focus on being a student when they have mouths to feed? And so I do want them to do all of these things. And I do know that people who have survived incarceration are exceptional beings who’ve been able to find a way.


I think that we should start sitting down with these different programs, and saying, “How are you taking a student-centered approach toward non-traditional justice-impacted students? What social issues is your organization tackling to ensure that these students even have the chance to participate in education? What are these local colleges – that are responsible for gentrifying a lot of the inner-city communities – doing to ensure that justice-impacted people and non-traditional students are able to get an education?” It’s these questions we need to have the answers to, and these questions that we have to start presenting, because these questions are going to impact whether or not one of our students who is transitioning out of prison, one of our brilliant scholars who are looking for their first chance at education, are going to be able to take advantage of education and have the opportunity to do meaningful work after.


The first big job I got was with Bristol Myers Squibb – I thought, “Yes! I’m finally going to be making a wage around $40,000.” I was fired on my first day. Because, even though my charges at that time were around a decade old, they said that I was sentenced eight years ago. So I didn’t actually beat that decade-threshold requirement. So I was fired on my first day. I was working like, an hour, and they told me that I should go home until they figure things out. Do you know how disheartening that is? And then people talk about recidivism rates. Do you know how many times I just wanted to say, “Fuck it.” It was crazy.


I was later given the opportunity to work with the seriously mentally ill population out of Rikers Island. This is why a lot of people who are justice-impacted go on to be case workers or social workers, because at least I can utilize my lived experience as leverage. That shouldn’t have to be the only profession that we’re going to find. And then after that, I was able to transition to Princeton University, working with the STEM-Ops program, through the Princeton Teaching Initiative, which gives justice-impacted scholars an opportunity to intern at Princeton University. I’m also engaged to create curriculum that can go into prisons, and teach individuals who are justice-impacted as well as provide content, conversation, and active discourse on how to make education in prison programs more inclusive.


But this happened after years of just begging for someone to hire me. Like, all I need is $17 an hour so I can get a studio apartment – and this is after I got my master’s degree. From Columbia University!


When you’re looking to create opportunities for the underserved community, one of the biggest assets for the scholars who are able to make it through these extraordinary circumstances, are allies. I’m talking about scholars in every light, scholars who have been incarcerated for thirty-some years; scholars that are still dealing with some type of disability, whether it be physical or mental, or learning disabilities; scholars that are dealing with serious mental illness. They’re getting through because of their fortitude, and their ability to conquer the odds.


So allies are people that can play an integral role in the success of any underserved community being granted opportunities. And I think that’s where we want to compel more people to do more: if you don’t understand the type of circumstances these individuals faced, who made a decision that wasn’t the best in the past; of individuals that come from these type of circumstances – because you are privileged enough not to have to encounter them – yes, you could be an ally. You could be somebody who helps support kids. You have to have the strength to see that this is an issue, an issue that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color and people from marginalized communities, period. We need more voices advocating for change. Because if it’s just us, we can only go so far. It was people like Dr. Donald Roden that saw potential in this population of 2.5 million people who are incarcerated.


There are people like Dr. Roden who literally started opening these doors and finding pathways because they leveraged their privilege, and advocated on our behalf. But if we don’t have more people doing that in different spaces, then yes, there will be a few people who slip through the cracks, but that’s all it’s going to be: a small trickle in this pool of despair.


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