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  • Karen Barnes Kaplan

“The Passion I Never Knew I Had”: A Conversation with Deb Corbett

Updated: Mar 22


A few months ago, Deborah Corbett put forward F.O.R.T.E. House to receive a generous financial gift through the Sharing the Riches program of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair (UUCM), where she is a member. But Deb’s involvement in higher education in NJ prisons began 15 years earlier, through an event at that same Congregation. She went on to become one of the founding forces behind what is now NJ-STEP. In a recent conversation, Deb recreated the processes and people who made it all happen.


I was a psychology professor at Raritan Valley Community College [RVCC]. And in October 2007 I attended a program at my congregation, UUCM, led by some women from an organization called Redeem-Her, which provides housing and support services for women who’d been incarcerated at Edna Mahan [Correctional Facility (EMCF)]. At the end of the service, someone mentioned another member of the congregation, a Dr. Johanna Foster, who was trying to provide college courses in the prison. And I thought, Hmmm…Edna Mahan is in Hunterdon County, I’m at RVCC which serves Somerset and Hunterdon County, I should seek out Johanna. When I did, after the service, she said, “I’ve been dying to meet a faculty member from Raritan Valley!”


We finally got together in February 2008, and Johanna said, “Maybe someone could teach a course for credit in the prison…” I said, “ We waited two months to meet and you just want to talk about a course? What’s your fantasy?” She said, “A degree program.” And I said, “Well, why don’t we start there.”


Johanna and others–in particular Kesha Moore, a sociology professor at Drew University–were already teaching as volunteers in the prisons. These were college-level classes, but they weren’t initially for credit. I can’t say enough about the dedication and commitment of these two women. They were not only teaching challenging academic content, but were giving the women a sense of “this is what a college course is like” and “this is a syllabus” and so on. The then-president of Drew University, where Kesha taught, agreed to Drew credit for one course; When he came to the final class to hear presentations he was so impressed, he decided to support Drew’s involvement. But, he said Drew would need a community college partner to offer many of the foundational courses that would be needed.


That conversation with Johanna led to months of meetings with people around my college–the head of the Math Department, head of the English department, the Dean of Students, and others. I had a very collegial approach, plus I’d been there over 25 years. So if I asked, people were at least willing to come to a meeting.


But a critical factor was that our President at the time, Dr. Casey Crabill, supported it. I remember feeling a little shaky when I first went in to talk to her about it. I had my six bullet points: Why I thought we could do this, how to entice faculty by making it “in-load” [i.e. a part of a professor’s normal course load], and so on. I got to point three on my list and she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. I’ve been here three years, I know we have a prison down the road, and I keep thinking, ‘We’re a community college, we should be serving them.’”


And then Margaret Atkins, who preceded Chris Agan as head of the higher education in prison program, secured one year of funding through a foundation in Chicago. President Crabill brought everyone to the table – multiple administrators, three department chairs – and we had the funding. And she said, very calmly, “I want this to happen.”


Another champion was Todd Clear, who was the Dean of the School of Law and Criminal Justice at Rutgers-Newark. He brought together people from a variety of NJ colleges as well as some students and DOC people, to explore working together in a consortium model, which became NJ-STEP. He knew so many funders and was key in getting us funding from the Ford Foundation and the Vera Institute for Justice.


The Department of Corrections was a little more difficult, because any time you bring college education into a prison, you make everybody’s work a little harder. But there, too, individual people pushed it forward. Patty Friend, at DOC endorsed the plan. There was a very supportive Director of Education at Edna Mahan at the time, Cathy Morgan; and the Head Administrator of Edna Mahan, William Hauck, was behind it. So the first three classes were offered at Edna Mahan in March, 2009.


That was the first time any college in the state of New Jersey offered courses for credit leading to an Associates degree. Initially we were focused on English and Math, and in the third year we began to offer courses in other disciplines, including electives. The faculty were amazing! Teaching in the prison was like teaching 15 years ago, because while some states do allow controlled use of the internet, New Jersey took that privilege away years before we began. We said we want to give these students a commensurate experience, as much as possible. How to do that without online access? So, for example, one of our history professors worked with a research librarian to locate multiple primary source documents, and made copies of each one to give to the students, so that they could read real journal articles and learn how to do critical analysis. Many other professors followed in her footsteps. I could not believe all the extra work needed. And of course there were no computers available for faculty to use in the classrooms. Plus, when you teach at a facility, you drive there, and spend at least an extra half-hour parking and going through multiple security checks when you come in. So much easier, for sure, to leave one’s desk and walk across the hall to teach with everything a modern classroom has to offer, but that’s just one aspect of how dedicated the faculty were.


We were always looking for ways to make the college experience authentic, and to have our students see themselves as college students. Because yes, we were teaching academic subjects, but we also wanted to have an impact on the students’ self image, self esteem and confidence. You could hear it from comments they made to the professors, like, “No one ever told me I’m smart,” or “Do you really think I could be a college student?” And those intangibles stay with them, hopefully. That’s why we had asked our faculty to have students address them as “professor” rather than by first name: the only place you have a professor is in a college class. So if the students are saying that, they must be sitting in a college classroom.


In October, 2014 we had the first college graduation ever in New Jersey at Edna Mahan, and 14 women got their Associates degrees. I will never forget the absolute roars in the gym, from family and friends, and the happy tears. We made sure there were caps and gowns, and Pomp and Circumstance, and faculty and administrators. And Dr. Michael McDonough, our new president for all of 3 months at the time, and tremendously supportive of this program, presided over this first graduation and told them that he’d always remember that his first graduation conducted as president of RVCC was theirs.

So, from 2007 until 2016, along with teaching a couple of psychology classes each semester, helping to create and build this program became the passion I never knew I had. I didn’t teach inside until 6 years into the program, at Mountainview. My joy was in making the program happen. I handled the recruiting and orientation of professors into the program. And I also tried to keep the program in the front of the college’s brain. Because there are always people who are somewhat resistant, thinking “Wait, what are we doing? We’re giving free education to people who have committed crimes?” Once or twice a year, I’d go before the college on our All College Day and present, not only what we were doing, but where the country is.


What I wish every American knew–and you could hear the gasps when the charts went up on the large screen–is the rate of incarceration by country: We’re #1 In the world and next are all these countries that I’m thinking Americans don’t see as very similar to us, like Turkmenistan and Rwanda. The U.S. incarceration rate is 629 per 100,000 people; Spain is 113; the Nordic countries are 40 to 60. Another impressive graph shows the rate of incarceration through the 70s, and this enormous spike when there was this big “tough on crime” push. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, has educated a lot of people about mass incarceration. But I would say the vast majority of people haven’t read it, and the average person is walking around having no idea where we are in comparison to the rest of the world and even our own country over the past century.


About six months into the degree program, we recognized that we needed a name to encompass the entire process to a full degree. The group at Rutgers (which oversees the Bachelor’s degree program) felt our work could become a model in other states. I give Margaret Atkins full credit for the acronym STEP (Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons), which was inspired by some Rutgers students who had been inside, and particularly the word Transformative. A big group of us sat around the table, debating different options and even specific words. I felt a bit uncomfortable about having to live up to such a grand goal. Later at a meeting when Margaret stressed that we would be transforming lives, I remember one of the professors saying, nervously, “I thought you just wanted me to teach geology.”


Of course, if you are in education you generally believe that education can transform lives, but to have it so front and center in our name was something I would not have chosen. But went along with it. I don't know that a lot of faculty kept in mind when they were teaching inside that they were part of STEP and what it stood for. But a few months after we adopted the name, a faculty member came into my office, flopped down in a chair and said, “I know it’s only three weeks into it, but this class is really transforming me.” And I thought, is she deliberately using the “T” word? She wasn’t. Then a dean came to me after the first year and said, “Deb, I don’t know if you’re aware, but this program is transforming the college.” I went to Margaret and said, “I pushed back against T standing for Transformative, but obviously you were right! Because while we hope the students are being transformed, we’re hearing faculty saying they’re being transformed and the administration thinks the college is being transformed.”


The educational experience does transform people on both sides. Professors would stop in and tell me amazing stories. A teacher was taken aback when someone offered to carry her books. One student said, “Bless you for being here.” Someone said, “For these two hours I feel like a real human being.” One English professor had a woman share some poetry she’d written; RVCC has a literary magazine, and the professor got one of this student’s poems published there. Another student said, “When I speak to my children and they tell me about their homework, I can tell them about my homework.” We can never really understand how, for many people, it did change their lives–beyond the earning of the credits.


Over the years, the program expanded: more courses, more facilities. And then when New Jersey was one of the states in the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot, we had to expand a lot. There are more degrees now, and more students. It really has evolved. We hired a director, Sheila Meiman, who has – and the word is apt again – transformed this program as it reaches into multiple facilities around the state.


I mentioned I retired from Raritan Valley a few years ago–after over 40 years there! My primary interest now is in restorative justice: I joined a reading group focused on this, and I was part of a team that created a 6-week speaker series, hosted and sponsored by our congregation last spring. New Jersey just allocated $2 million to establish restorative justice programs for youth in five cities, as a preferred approach to dealing with crimes. It is beyond inspiring to think that I first met Tia when she was inside and all that she has accomplished academically and through powerful leadership. I truly look up to her as someone from whom I could learn so much.


It was a joy to be able to recommend F.O.R.T.E. House to be a recipient of our Sharing the Riches program, where whatever is collected on a Sunday is shared with the recipient. Tia came December 5th and spoke for 3 minutes, and she was amazing.


So while I’m not as directly involved in any programs now, I’m still reading, still learning, still voting.


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