HCCC program allows inmates in Hudson County Jail to get college degrees

Joe Wise

Joseph Wise is a 48-year-old, lifelong Jersey City resident who is now in his third semester of studies at Hudson County Community College. But his road to a college degree, you might say, is far from typical. In fact, it’s hard to believe it’s true — though it is.

He began his higher education journey in the Academic and Workforce Pathway Program in September 2021 — while he was incarcerated at the Hudson County Correctional Center in South Kearny.

Wise says he has spent much of his life in and out of institutions and battling substance abuse. He says shortly after starting AWPP, HCCC’s Associate Vice President for Continuing Education and Workforce Development Lori Margolin called him “a scholar.”

“No one ever called me a scholar before,” Wise said. “It made me think. It made me realize that my mind was more locked up than my body.”

It also made Wise come to the realization classes got his mind off jail, and education was the only way to stay out of institutions.

“I decided: I did jail, now do education,” he said.

AWPP is the result of a partnership between Hudson County Community College, the Hudson County Correctional Center and the Hudson County Department of Housing and Community Reintegration. The program is made possible by a $450,000 grant to HCCC from Hudson County. It is one of just a handful of such programs in the United States that offer virtual degree and workforce training in a county correctional facility.

All too often, incarcerated men and women are not given tools needed to return to society without encountering poverty, violence, unemployment and dependency — the same conditions that led to their incarcerations in the first place.

Data indicates the unemployment rate of previously incarcerated men and women is five times higher than that of the general population, and 70% of children with incarcerated parents develop criminal records as well.

“The most effective programs to combat recidivism are those that begin prior to release, include education and/or job training programs and provide ongoing support — elements that are incorporated into AWPP,” HCCC President Christopher Reber said. “Programs like this are essential and transformational, and the men and women who participate are extraordinarily inspirational.”

Margolin and HCCC Dean of Academic Affairs and Assessment Heather DeVries worked with Hudson County Department of Housing and Community Reintegration Director Frank Mazza and the Hudson County Correctional Center to institute the program, which offers participants a choice of a degree or workforce path.

When it began last fall, the program was offered only to men, and this summer, women were included. Today, there are 44 scholars in the AWPP, for a total of 122 students enrolled since the program began.

Program participants must meet all HCCC academic requirements. Classes take place in the jail’s law library. In addition to providing classes, HCCC partner Women Rising, Inc. conducts financial literacy and life skills sessions, and to promote equity, the college ensures incarcerated students receive the same academic coaching and assistance as other HCCC students.

Wise says he was also battling substance abuse, and one of his professors gave him a list of meetings to attend.

Now on probation with Recovery Court, he is taking classes on campus at HCCC as an EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) student, receiving counseling, tutoring, financial assistance and the support of faculty and academic counselors, especially HCCC EOF Director Jose Lowe and his staff.

After graduating from HCCC with an associate degree in human services/pre-social work, Wise says he plans on transferring to the Rutgers University School of Social Work. Eventually, he wants to work with adolescents in a treatment facility so he can help prevent young people from going through some of the challenges he has experienced.

“This is a really good program with people who are great inspirations to me,” Wise stated. “Everyone in the program is pushing to help me do what I need to do to succeed, and I am going to do that.”


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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.