The Iliad is doing hard time – and the inmates love it

The Iliad is doing hard time – and the inmates love it

Maximum-security inmates at a New Jersey prison have been learning about the literary world with Rutgers University associate professor Emily Allen-Hornblower. But the novelty isn’t that they are studying literature or even that they are doing it behind bars.

It’s what they are learning about that’s so impressive. At East Jersey State, formerly Rahway State Prison, inmates devour The Classics – the Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh, and many other literary heavyweights.

Allen-Hornblower, who also recently taught Western Civilization at Northern State Prison, shares her love of heroic epics because she believes students identify with the main characters – who often have complex, troubled lives.

As such, the characters’ adventures serve as a springboard for frank discussions about the complex issues the prisoners have dealt with in their lives and the struggles of positive and negative influences. In essays about the books they’ve written, the inmates share their thoughts about the consequences of their actions in life and discover a new connection to the past, present and future – regardless of race, gender, or other circumstances.

The classes help prisoners inspect and explore the larger picture of their lives.

Inmates do not just have the opportunity to study classics and other humanities subjects. The Education Department of East Jersey State Prison offers a wide variety of inmates programs to inmates, including programs such as mechanics, culinary arts, and horticulture, as well as primary and GED courses and other college-level classes.

Allen-Hornblower isn’t the only professor teaching in prisons in New Jersey. She is one of many academics participating as part of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP), which is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to provide higher education courses to those who are incarcerated and, significantly, assist in the transition to college life after their release into the community.

Currently, nine participating institutions, including Rutgers and Princeton, offer courses in seven different facilities. Besides the academic courses offered, the NJ-STEP program also includes re-entry support programs, including academic counselors that help prisoners plan for release and help get them accepted into colleges after, helping to ensure continued success.

The programs allow successful inmates to learn new skills, think about their futures, provide a positive social network, and reduce recidivism. Programs like this are so important when 95% of prisoners in the state will ultimately be released, and preparing them for what happens next is essential.

Officials at NJ-STEP and Mountainview, a continuation program at Rutgers, say that only a tiny handful of program participants return to prison. The academics that participate as teachers also see substantial personal benefits and count the participants as the best students they’ve ever had. They are thirsty for knowledge, want to improve their lives, and are committed to the work.

NJ-STEP and Mountainview are just two great extwo great examples of what prisons should be as part of America’s goal to reduce rampant recidivism and incarceration rates.