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Prisoners study classics with Rutgers professor

Emily Allen-Hornblower, an associate professor in the Department of Classics, is working with prisoners to educate them on different literary works. – Photo by

Inmates in local prisons are now studying the works of Aristotle and Homer because Emily Allen-Hornblower, an associate professor in the Department of Classics. 

Allen-Hornblower teaches a world civilization course to a class of 22 inmates at a maximum-security prison in Rahway.

Christopher Etienne, a Rutgers alumnus and winner of the Flip Wilson Memorial scholarship, tutored at a prison while completing his college education and was an inspiration for Allen-Hornblower.

“He was very eloquent and his story moved me,” Allen-Hornblower said. “I wanted to be in touch with him — to find out more about opportunities for teaching behind bars, which is something I had always thought about doing.”

Allen-Hornblower met with Etienne and learned about the work he did with formerly incarcerated students, as well as the program NJ-STEP.

She quickly became involved and met a group of inmates working towards an associate’s degrees in prison.

They spoke about themselves, how they felt broken, and how pursuing an education and obtaining college credit had transformed their lives, she said. And it was clear that it had.

The inmates gave off an incredible vibe, Allen-Hornblower said.

“They had the sort of resilience that would give anybody the hope and strength to pursue their dreams in the most challenging of circumstances,” she said. “I told them about the classics and some of my interests in ancient literature, myth and social and cultural history — and they wanted to hear more.”

Allen-Hornblower began teaching History 101 Western Civilization soon after at Northern State Prison. She taught a full semester’s worth of material over the course of the summer, meeting for several hours in the morning.

“This was one of the most rewarding and transformative teaching experiences of my life,” she said. “These students are amazing. They want to do more than the reading you give them. They want more assignments. They are hungry for discussion and knowledge.”

Everything is genuine and straight-forward, she said. Important issues are addressed without beating around the bush. 

“(They are) so respectful, intellectually curious and insightful. I learned so much,” she said. “I left every session feeling enriched by their questions and comments.”

This semester, Allen-Horblower is teaching nights at the maximum security prison in Rahway.

The students have amazed her with their dedication and passion for learning.

“They bring an entirely new and enriching lens to the material we are looking at — whether it is historical, social, economic, religious — and their readings make for incredibly fruitful and intense discussions,” she said.

Allen-Hornblower loves every moment of her work.

“Thanks to initiatives like NJ-STEP, inmates are given a chance to pursue what was never given to them before and things are changing in terms of public perception of those behind bars,” she said.

With every hour of education, the rate of recidivism decreases, she said, which is a way to solve the “revolving door problem.”

“(This program helps) to advance social justice and, most importantly, to remind ourselves and everyone involved of the humanity that we share and connects us,” she said. “This initiative benefits everyone in the end.”

Noa Halff is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies. She is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum.

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