"Everyone deserves what I got": A conversation with Tyreek Rolon
Tyreek Rolon recognizes that his experience of incarceration and reentry is unique. He was given opportunities and resources that few people in the carceral system experience. And he’s grateful. But his question is, Why doesn’t everyone receive that kind of support and investment? What if we gave everyone “special treatment” in order to learn and thrive? Below, Tyreek tells his story, and issues a challenge to leaders in education and justice.
Both in my sentence and in my period of incarceration, my situation is a little bit unique because of my educational background and my personal history. Prior to my being locked up, at one point in my life, I was the top basketball player in the state. And I was a pretty good student in high school. I had six Division 1 scholarship offers to play basketball. So I came into the system with some post-secondary education, and an athletic “career” – which made me look a little different from some of the other folks caught up in it.
When you are convicted of a crime in NJ, there’s a period before you’re sentenced when you are sent to the Central Reception and Assignment Facility, or CRAF, where you’re housed before you get assigned to a specific state prison to serve your sentence. Friends and family members who’d been through the system said, you can ask for an assignment closest to home so it’s easier for people to visit. When I got to Classification at CRAF, I asked to be housed at Annandale or Northern State.
But the people reviewing your case, making the assignments, first ask you a series of questions: “What’s your educational background? What’s the highest level of education you attained?” I told them I was a sophomore in college. “Were you ever in a gang?” I said no. And from there, things began to shift. I didn’t know why at the time, because I was 25 years old, had no real understanding of the historical context behind the prison-industrial complex, or what had been done to black and brown people in our world as it pertains to prison.
So they said, “You know what? We’re not going to send you to the prisons that you requested. We’re going to house you here.” "Here" meaning CRAF. It’s a special housing unit of about 80 people. To be housed in CRAF, it pretty much means you’re seen as the cream of the crop of those incarcerated – or a person who’s “redeemable.” They usually use the CRAF unit to house older men who had drug abuse/substance abuse issues; young white males; Latinos that were being deported; and people like myself who were first-time offenders they see as redeemable.
I got that assignment because I’d gone to school. I had college experience. The people in the Classification office had no idea that my grades weren’t that good in college, that I’d dropped out, and I’d gone back and forth. Nor did they care about my criminal history. But they immediately placed me in a box and said, “Wait a minute, this young guy could be my son, my nephew, my friend. We’re going to put him in a place where he’ll do okay.” And they actually did that.
It was a blessing in disguise. I tell people, although I was oppressed and felt the grips of prison, I was put in a situation because of certain things in my past, to not really feel what a lot of my peers went through.
Even while at CRAF, there were some people who were incarcerated who were mistreated. But for some reason, the officers and guards and lieutenants, they tended to take a liking to me. I’m pretty sure they had found out who I was and my athletic story, and they were perceiving me as a “good kid.” Like, “He’s the one we’re going to save.” My entire prison bid looked like that, even when I got into the halfway house.
Generally, I think the halfway house is a barrier to one’s success in reentry. One of the main reasons why I was able to succeed is because I was given the benefit of the doubt. Yes, they still give you opportunities to go to school, and to work, but only because it’s a business and it benefits other people.
Before I got to the halfway house, I met a brother named Ryan; we used to play basketball together. At some point, I shared my story of my previous life in athletics and college. My friend Ryan told me, “Have you heard about this program called NJ-STEP? You should try it. When you’re out of the halfway house, you’ll be able to go to school, pursue your education.”
So in 2014, I wrote to Dr. Donald Roden,* Chris Agans,* and others at NJ-STEP and said, “I’m interested in school; I would like to go.” I ultimately was sent to Harbor House, a halfway house in Newark. And again, people meet me, hear my story, and they kind of pushed me and expedited my process to go to school.
I was going to school because I didn’t want a “program,” and I didn’t want to work any of the jobs they had provided, which also means I’d be paying them housing fees of 33% of my earnings, when they’re already getting paid off of me anyway. They expedited me because I had previous college experience, because I seemed like a good kid, and because when people hear my story, they tend to jump on it. That’s been my experience.
At first, I was just going to school because it seemed like the best option. But once I was there, I started thinking, “Hey, let me figure this thing out.” And being in that environment, and being around professors and learning, was great for me. I got into a program called Next Step, which is similar to NJ-STEP but it assists people at the Community College level at Essex County. Next Step at the time was working with the halfway houses in northern NJ: Kintock, Tully House and Harbor House. It also provided wrap-around services to the people who were in the halfway house pursuing an education.
When I got that opportunity, I just took off. I think it was the perfect time, with me being mature, understanding, and people pouring resources into me. From there, my grades spoke for themselves. And what I was able to represent, for the College and Next Step, also made Harbor House look good. I had a work-study job in Enrollment Services, and in the gym. So even though I was at Harbor House, I was able to stay out for 12 hours a day. That’s unusual.
My last semester before I was released, in 2016, I popped up on NJ-STEP’s radar. They came to meet with me in the halfway house, asked me if I was still interested in completing my Bachelor’s degree. I said yes. They told me all I had to do was just stay on track, doing what I was doing, and they would support me in continuing my education. Once I got home I graduated in 2017 from Essex County Community College. At that point, looking at entering Rutgers-Newark, NJ-STEP connected me to the Honors Living-Learning Community. HLLC is a social justice program that gives gap scholarships to minority and marginalized students from across the state, to help pay whatever financial aid doesn’t cover. The deans, chancellors and staff are phenomenal people – some of the best educators and human beings on this planet.
As an honors student within HLLC, you major in your choice of fields, but minor in their curriculum: Social Justice. They’re cultivating talent and change agents among students who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity. It is an honors college, a non-traditional one; for example, they don’t solely focus on GPA. Great program. To qualify, you go through an interview process. Again, I shared my story; they liked the path I was on; they liked where I came from; and they saw I was serious about making a difference in communities like mine, locally and globally. They gave me an opportunity: a room and board scholarship for two years. And from there, I took that into my own hands and just soaked up everything that was around me – everything that NJ-STEP had to offer, that Rutgers-Newark had to offer, that Next Step had to offer, that HLLC had to offer. Everything the entire Newark community had to offer. And I just took off.
I started off when I came home – July 5, 2016 – as a re-entry worker, on the back of the garbage truck. I was ultimately working at the DPW, the Department of Sanitation, my entire tenure of going through school. I worked my way up to the front office where I was the director’s liaison. And now, I've actually been promoted in the city of Newark, working in the Business Administration Office serving as the deputy chief of staff. I also work full-time for NJ-STEP as an academic counselor for the students at Northern State Prison. I’m a graduate facilitator for HLLC at Rutgers-Newark; for their incoming cohort every September, I co-facilitate a course called Local Citizen in a Global World. That’s the starter course for change agents. So, academic counselor at Northern State, working for the city of Newark, and the HLLC facilitator role. Plus, my fiancé and I have six kids between us, including two-year twins.
I’ve been afforded every opportunity. My issue, and what I challenge people in power who are active in this prison-education pipeline, is to look past every individual’s “record,” the way they were able to look past mine and see what they’d seen in me. And see who they wanted me to be, who I could be, and who I really am. Sometimes I say I have survivor’s guilt, because even in the halfway house, I was given some special privileges, and the benefit of the doubt. I as able to bring back food, I was able to have a sustainable amount coffee, extra cash -- which was usually prohibited for others. I was able to stay out for 12 hours a day for my work-study. I was able to maneuver, because the people in those institutions would make sure I had everything I needed to succeed. I never put myself in jeopardy by doing things they asked you not to do, like bringing back a cell phone. But, on the flip side, the counselors would make sure I had access to use the phone – during weekends, for example.
That kind of “privilege” should have been afforded to everyone, in my opinion. People tend to say “How come more people can’t be like you?” or “What do we need to do to get students like you?” I always tell people, If you could pour into everyone else the way you poured into me, I think you’d get those same results. You treat them the same way you treated me: give them the benefit of the doubt, give them the resources that you gave me. Some people might get it a little quicker than I did, and it might take some people a little longer. But I think when you give those individuals grace and love and gentleness, and an opportunity, I think the end result is leaders and change agents – people founding community organizations, working to help others, becoming teachers and role models and leaders.
*Dr. Donald Roden is a leader in education within the carceral system and founded the Mountainview community at NJ-STEP. Chris Agans is the Executive Director of NJ-STEP.