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  • Writer's pictureKaren Barnes Kaplan

Leading at the Intersection of Education and Justice: Our Conversation with Terrell Blount

In our recent conversation with Terrell Blount, we learned how he went from taking courses while incarcerated to earning both a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters from Rutgers University, and on to creating better opportunities for others to follow his lead. He’s now a significant presence in the ongoing transformation of the justice system. Read on!

Terrell Blount remembers it clearly: he was living in a Newark halfway house, and on duty mopping up the cafeteria one evening when he asked a coworker, “What classes are you taking at Essex County College?” The other resident said, “I’m not taking classes there, I’m at Rutgers.” Rutgers?!

Terrell quickly shifted away from his original plan to apply to the community college. That same night, he tracked down an education slip. “I wrote on the front, the back, and in between the lines why I deserved to go to Rutgers.” The next morning he had a call from an Education Counselor, who connected him to the same professor, Don Roden, that his fellow resident had mentioned. Soon enough, Terrell was taking classes at Rutgers University.

Even when he was still incarcerated, Terrell had envisioned attending Rutgers. He had a job in the education center there, and a woman who worked as a counselor would give him recruiting pamphlets from various universities: Drexel, Temple, Rowan, Montclair State. “But I was always drawn to Rutgers--and this was years before the halfway house,” he recounted. When his fellow resident mentioned that he was enrolled in Rutgers, Terrell realized the dream was possible. He went on to earn his B.A. in Communications and Media Studies, and later returned to Rutgers for a Master’s in Public Administration.

Many of the support programs now available to formerly incarcerated college students were not yet in place when Terrell was first enrolled. But he was undaunted, and in fact thrived as a student. “I was in a place of gratitude for the position I was in,” he said in looking back. “I thought there were so many people behind the gates who could benefit from the experience I was having.” That experience has informed his career as a leader in educational opportunity for justice-impacted individuals.

For example, he was part of the team that created the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program, which works with the NJ Department of Corrections in offering college courses inside state prisons, and helps students transition to college programs upon release. Terrell helped develop the mentoring training and support offered through NJ-STEP, knowing the importance of mentors in his own journey. He advocated for mechanisms to transfer college credits earned inside toward a student’s degree. “I thought I had 20 credits earned while I was incarcerated; only three credits actually transferred,” he recalled. NJ-STEP was then designed to enable a more seamless transition for students in acquiring credits and transitioning from in-prison to campus-based course work.

Another example: Terrell was taking courses while incarcerated, but “those courses were nothing like what’s being offered across the country today.” At the time, if an individual was moved from one facility to the next, there was often no communication between the DOC administration and the faculty. To a professor, it appeared the student had just stopped coming to class, often resulting in an “F” one’s transcript. Fellow students had to let the professor know that the missing student had been transferred. This was another gap in the system that Terrell helped close, not only through NJ-STEP but with other organizations in other states.

Many studies have shown that post-secondary education is a factor in reducing recidivism and providing a path toward a new life for many formerly incarcerated individuals. For Terrell, the transformative power of education lies not only in the knowledge acquired. “It’s also the opportunities that are presented to you, or that you create for yourself.” While an undergrad, he actively worked to form bonds with fellow students, professors, employers, campus visitors--anyone who might open up a new opportunity, even by offering an idea. He now applies the same philosophy in helping others, becoming a mentor, a source of support, and a contributor.

“Being in college is not enough, graduating is not enough,” he said. “Even traditional students--that is, people who have not been justice-impacted--even for them, going to college is not enough. That’s why we have so many graduates speaking down on higher education, saying, ‘I have all this debt and I can’t get a job.’ My question would be, during your college years what were you doing to establish networks?”

He noted that he’d sometimes skip a class to attend a career fair or hear a speaker. “I’d attend to get that person’s business card and five minutes of their time, so my name would be on their radar. Most college students don’t think in that way.” Terrell noted that he was older than most college sophomores, and was able to think more strategically. He now passes along this wisdom to the students he meets through his work.

Over the past decade, Terrell has held various positions with organizations directly involved in creating, funding, delivering, and advocating for educational opportunity for justice-involved individuals. He has worked with organizations that include the Vera Institute, the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, Rutgers University, and now Laughing Gull Foundation. His experiences have given him keen insights into what’s needed, and what works, at “the intersection of education and justice,” as he defines it.

“I would advise anyone who enters this space as a non-impacted person, to question why they’re getting into this work. Maybe a college wants to extend their teaching resources to a broader population. Or maybe they’re looking for tuition dollars, since Pell Grants are available to incarcerated students again. Maybe they want to reduce recidivism. Whatever the reason, they need to be questioning why they are in this. If you do, the answer should be revealing about what you’re doing, and how committed you are,” he said.

He also noted that the programs that are student-focused, “the ones that center the lives and well-being of directly impacted students,” those are the programs that hardly ever succumb to political pressures or wither when circumstances get too rough. The programs that are focused on money, or on the relationship with the Corrections department, or are led by people who don’t want to ruffle any feathers at the college: those are the programs that are not student-centered. “When you listen to the population about what they need, what they want, rather than making decisions for them on their behalf--that’s then the program has a greater chance at succeeding,” he said.

As for the future, Terrell is both realistic and encouraged. “In a country like ours, I think there’s always going to be much to do,” he noted. “There are so many structures to break down and rework. So my work now is just a few chapters in my life’s book: working directly with and for impacted people.” But the passage of the December 2020 budget bill that reinstated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals offers some hope. “That was such an emotional victory for me,” he said. “To see that bill pass, and to know that I helped with that, through my work at the Vera Institute, that I was a part of that victory--that was very meaningful.”

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