This Drew professor helps adults learn behind bars, so their future is brighter when they’re released.

Drew Prof. Kesha Moore takes part in a roundtable discussion with the governor about college courses for men and women who are incarcerated.
Drew Prof. Kesha Moore takes part in a roundtable discussion with the governor about college courses for men and women who are incarcerated.

When Gov. Chris Christie held a roundtable discussion on May 8 at Mercer County Community College to throw his support behind a program that offers college degrees to New Jersey inmates, he met with a Drew professor and a Drew alumna who were instrumental in getting that program started.

Sociology Professor Kesha Moore and Margaret Quern Atkins T’07 were among the founding members of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison (NJ-STEP) Consortium, a group of eight colleges and universities across the state, including Drew, that teach college courses to men and women in prison.

Moore and Quern Atkins met with the governor and other professors and heard stories from recent college graduates who began their education behind bars. The students had left prison, earned four-year degrees, taught others to read and some were applying to graduate school.

“Each student made a conscious decision to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them,” said the governor. “You are the shining examples that this is possible and within your grasp.”

Drew professors, with funding from NJ-STEP, have taught everything from Italian and cultural anthropology to U.S. history, to people incarcerated in the Edna Mahan Correctional Center for Women and the Mountain View Youth Correctional Facility, both in Hunterdon County, said Moore.

She has taken the learning model a step further, and has twice taught courses at the Mahan Center where students from Drew and students from the prison learned together.

Moore said teaching inmates has been a transformative experience for her and other professors. “We’ve made a lifetime commitment to education. We believe it’s the best way to change your life and society. These students understand that. This is their best chance to make things different for themselves and their families.”

Quern Atkins, who directs the NJ-STEP program, also piloted the Partnership for Religion and Education in Prison program at Drew, where students from the Theo School bring theology education to New Jersey’s prisons.

She said 650 inmates will be enrolled in college courses this fall, thanks to NJ-STEP and its partner colleges.

Both advocates praised the governor for his support. Moore said, “I think he really does understand the significance of this work . . . This is life-changing work, not just for individual lives, but it makes our communities safer.”—Elizabeth Moore

Read more in the May 8, 2014, Star-Ledger.