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  • Writer's pictureKaren Barnes Kaplan

The “Sacred Space” of FORTE House:Our Interview with Chris Agans

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Christopher Agans is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformational Education Program (NJ-STEP) administrative team, coordinating services for students attending college in New Jersey prisons and connecting them to college in the community. This month’s blog presents excerpts from our conversation about the relationship between housing, education, and the nurturing of transformational leaders.

Newark has the largest re-entry population across the whole NJ-STEP population. And a campus is the ideal environment in which to undergo re-entry. When you’re enrolled in an educational program, you have a purpose, you have pro-social peers to engage with, you have resources that provide operational support like health care, psychological care, substance abuse treatment, and employment counseling. So the educational environment is a huge contributor to a person’s ability to create a successful life.

So next question is, where can a student live? Some have family they can live with, but many do not. What are their options?

Some are forced to start their “new life” at a shelter. That is not the ideal environment for attending college. Shelters can be dangerous. I know of students who’ve chosen to be homeless rather than live in a shelter. I knew a student who was murdered in a shelter. So, the people that enter shelters are going to have a very hard time completing their education.

A few of our students can live in student housing, like the dorms, but that’s not ideal either. Dorms are expensive. Many of our students are older than the typical college student, so they aren’t among true peers. And, let’s be honest, some of the behaviors that take place in a dorm—like drinking or drugs—aren’t consistent with successful re-entry. And there’s the potential for stigma: Imagine a parole officer visiting a dorm-mate. Now that person is labeled.

There are other housing options created specifically for re-entry, but they often merely replicate the carceral experience. Our students have just left an environment in which they were literally forced into captivity. They are not always willing to immediately move in with others, under a strict set of rules. It takes a leap of faith to see a shared housing option as safe, positive and conducive to their education and to re-entry.

So: Shelters are not a good place for any student to succeed. Dorms are not ideal for the recently-released. Post-release housing often doesn’t work. That leaves our students having to rent an apartment at market rates. Now they have to work to pay the rent—sometimes working a couple part-time jobs, in fact—and that leaves little time to be a student, to be part of the community of students, to attend class reliably and have time to do the out-of-class work.

Without stable housing and a supportive environment, people give up on higher education. And that has long-term consequences for individual lives, and for the community.

Contrast that with what FORTE House offers: a safe house, a community of up to ten people who are true peers with shared experience, affordable monthly expense for a student [FORTE House residents pay monthly room & board, consistent with our principle of economic self-sufficiency, which helps to cover the costs of maintaining the house as well as food, toiletries and similar necessities--Editor]; access to support services like tutoring, mentoring, resume preparation. Even access to the internet and a working computer—all of these allow the students who are experiencing re-entry to focus on being a student.

That opportunity goes beyond just going to class. Now that student can take an unpaid internship that offers great experience and builds broader contacts within the study community. They can make time for optional lectures. They can take summer courses. It’s a different level of academic engagement, which in turn positions them for a more successful career entry.

Students who leave the University with research experience or participation in leadership activities — those students launch at a different level than the person who had to work night shifts. They are not only more likely to find employment, but their opportunities are at a higher level.

When you look at the entire chain of impact, you can see why I think of FORTE House as a crucial space—in fact, a sacred space—for a special group of people who are committed to bettering their lives.

What are the barriers to creating more FORTE Houses and, more broadly, to justice reform? There are dozens, and it goes beyond funding. Even within the higher education community, I occasionally encounter resistance: Is this the best way to use limited resources? I think it is, and we have strong support from our Chancellor, Nancy Cantor. But there’s also community resistance, which I understand. People hear “formerly incarcerated” and react based on stereotypes. We have to work to change that mindset. There are relationships that have to be cultivated with the parole and probation offices. We need to cultivate trust across the community.

People like Tia — new leaders, people who have succeeded in re-entry, earned a degree, and are now change-makers opening doors for others — these are the people who can break down the barriers.

I think all of the colleges and universities participating in post-incarceration education see ourselves as providing opportunity for potential leaders of criminal justice reform for the next generation. The people who have been directly impacted by a broken system are best positioned to guide effective and lasting change. Our students can not only participate in that change, but also inspire the people who follow.

Our students who have completed higher education have the experience and even the vocabulary to access positions of influence: research positions, business positions, leadership in areas of social justice. Tia is a perfect example of these new leaders. She is not only making a huge difference through her work in creating FORTE House, she is inspiring and motivating others — me included, but also her peers, and the “upcomers.”

I think that’s possibly the biggest impact of her work, and of FORTE House: it becomes a source of inspiration. It demonstrates that our students can lead the way and redefine what Justice Reform looks like.

I think we’re entering a time of much greater receptivity to changing what we call criminal justice. The recent passing of a bill that restores eligibility for Pell grants to incarcerated individuals is not only a huge win for reform, but also a sign of changing attitudes. There’s a new willingness to consider a model of criminal justice that emphasizes opportunity rather than punishment.

Five years ago, the entire NJ-STEP program was begging for acceptance. People felt the college community had no business supporting those who may have committed crimes. There’s a different attitude now, a dramatic turn of mood and opinion, among members of the academic community, as well as elected officials and the Department of Education.

I credit that to the path-setting leadership of justice-involved students like Tia. They’ve taken the opportunity and run with it. They’ve built something that demonstrates the power, the impact, of a completely different approach to what we call “justice.” When formerly-incarcerated students become leaders, they speak louder and more clearly than anyone else. They are the people who will push new legislation and broader change over the edge.


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