Jim McGreevey describes the American prison system as a "moral cancer."
Jim McGreevey describes the American prison system as a “moral cancer.”

Jim McGreevey visits Drew Theological School.

Deirdre Good taught McGreevey at General Theological Seminary in New York.
Deirdre Good taught McGreevey at General Theological Seminary in New York.

December 2016 – For those who serve time in today’s American prison system, it can be nearly impossible to build a healthy life afterward.

Assistant Professor Althea Spencer Miller speaks during a Q&A segment.
Assistant Professor Althea Spencer Miller speaks during a Q&A segment.
Working to change the narrative
Working to change the narrative

That’s the premise behind NJ Reentry Corp., a nonprofit that provides a host of services to former inmates, including counseling, addiction treatment, housing and job training. The chairman of NJ Reentry, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, explained the principals of the program and why it’s sorely needed during a wide-ranging talk at Drew Theological School.

McGreevey, who described the American prison system as a “moral cancer,” traced its problems back to the 1940s, when courts used prisons to hold the mentally ill, drug-addicted and homeless, causing the population to skyrocket.

“It’s as if we all went mad” to the point today where one out of 32 Americans are in prison, on parole or on probation, McGreevey said. As such, McGreevey added, “One out of seven American families have been touched by the American criminal justice system.”

Against that stark backdrop, McGreevey, a former student of Theological School Associate Dean Deirdre Good, outlined the services of NJ Reentry and the keys to becoming re-acclimated in society. The Theological School also contributes to prisoner rehabilitation through its Partnership for Religion and Education in Prisons program, which PhD student Brian Tipton mentioned during McGreevey’s appearance. PREP offers a course each semester at two New Jersey prisons.

Here are the five core tenets of NJ Reentry.

Narrative. It’s important for former inmates to be actively involved in “altering the trajectory of his or her life,” McGreevey said, because they leave prison without essentials like housing, food and employment. Also, those convicted of felonies are ineligible for many jobs, and if they have drug convictions, may not be able to receive welfare.

Community. “If you put somebody who just came out of prison into an apartment with four white walls, it’s not going to work,” McGreevey said. That’s why NJ Reentry housing includes morning prayer and communal breakfast. Also, residents must be either in school or employed.

Sobriety. Many inmates with drug addictions aren’t treated in prison, which means they’re prone to using again once released. So, NJ Reentry provides the addiction treatment and counseling services.

Identity. After being labeled with a number and a uniform while in prison, former inmates often lack personal identity and think of themselves only in terms of their relationship to the corrections department. NJ Reentry tries to reestablish personal identity through counseling and even helps clients obtain legal identification.

Healthiness. Physically, of course, but also psychologically and spiritually. Ultimately, the goal is to build sound relationships and a strong self-image.