February 19, 2014

PU Students Working With Inmates Are Teaching, and Learning Too

Prison reform is no easy matter. Prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. When it comes to education, described by Cornel West as “probably the best thing we can do for people who are in prison,” resources are scarce.

But one program, founded here in Princeton, the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, is tackling some of the problems head on, one inmate at a time, with the help of Princeton University (PU) students who tutor prisoners to gain their GEDs and high school diplomas.

“You don’t have to go as far as Africa or to the Middle East to give back,” the program’s executive director Jim Farrin routinely tells participating students. “You can go 35 miles away to a prison where people are in desperate need of contact and further education.”

Students like PU Senior Grace Li, who has been a program tutor for three years, provide one-on-one help in reading, writing, and math. A public policies student at the Woodrow Wilson School, Ms. Li said that the experience of working with inmates has drawn her to a career in criminal justice and prison reform. “This program has changed my world view,” said Ms. Li, “I have come to understand how mass incarceration has effects on economics, politics, and the racial relationships in this country.”

Other students speak not only about the benefits of the program for those it serves, but also of the benefits they receive. “I was able to help those who needed it most and also learned a lot about the criminal justice system and criminals in America,” commented Dan Kowalaski (Class of 2012). “One of the most rewarding things in the program was that I was able to see outside of Princeton and get entirely new perspectives on life.”

Henry Barmeier (Class of 2010 and a Rhodes Scholar) had a similar experience. “The most incredible part of the program was how it brought me into a world so close to home and yet so foreign…. I learned a tremendous amount in a very short time about the nature of incarceration in New Jersey and about the challenges and opportunities for prison education and re-entry programs,” he is quoted as saying on the program’s website.

But it’s not just university students who participate in this effort. Local taxi driver Frenel Cide, originally from Haiti, shuttles students to and from the A.C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, about seven miles south of Trenton, and the Princeton campus each day, starting at 7:15 a.m. Department of Corrections Special Officer Mike Ritter, who also takes part in the program, is a staunch advocate of expanding literacy programs in prison.

According to Mr. Farrin, the United States has 2.3 million people in prison and many are imprisoned for longer periods than those convicted of similar crimes in Canada or the U.K. “About fifty-three percent of those incarcerated in our area are inside for non-violent crimes; many for drugs or drug related offenses,” he said

Many are around the same age as their student mentors. “These are young people just like me,” said one PU student. “It can be tough to persuade an inmate that you are there simply because you want to make a difference, to help them,” acknowledged another. “One thing I learned is how to teach.” said a third.

“This has been my most rewarding extra-curricular experience at Princeton,” said Clare Herceg (Class of 2011), who describes the program as “an amazing opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those who society often neglects.”

According to Ms. Herceg, “each visit to the prison not only allows tutors to improve the educational skills of the inmates, but also gives students the opportunity to show the inmates that people outside of the prison system care about them as human beings and believe in their ability to succeed. This experience has transformed my perceptions of the criminal justice system, educational inequalities, and issues surrounding poverty.”

“You see, this is a win-win-win program,” said Mr. Farrin. “It helps prisons by providing free tutors, it helps inmates further their education, which has been shown to effectively reduce recidivism, and it helps students, many of whom are choosing careers in criminal justice and becoming advocates of prison reform.”

Before the program took students into prisons, it researched to see if there were any similar programs out there, using college students to provide assistance to prison inmates. “We had the Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors research this area and there was virtually nothing that involved students going to prisons near their colleges,” said founder Charlie Puttkammer. “We believe that correctional education is one of the most effective interventions in reducing recidivism and increasing employment opportunities.”

Cognizant of the potential dangers of taking young students, used to the “orange bubble” that is the Princeton University campus, into prisons, the program advises students about appropriate behavior on both sides. They are advised about what clothes to wear, not to take cell phones into prison, and never to give out personal information such as emails or addresses. When they enter the prison, they are divested of personal belongings including ID materials.

“Petey” Greene (1931-1984)

In 1960, Mr. Greene was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to ten years in Fairfax County, Virginia. Inside, he became the prison disc jockey and a role model for many inmates. He overcame drug addiction and incarceration to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington, D.C. The actor Don Cheadle portrayed him in the 2007 film Talk to Me. 

The Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program was founded in 2007 by Mr. Greene’s close friend and mentor, Mr. Putkammer, as a non-profit dedicated to changing the state of education in America’s correctional facilities.

To this end, it recruits, trains, and transports college students and community members to local correctional facilities where they serve as volunteer tutors and teachers.

What started with a handful of volunteers at Princeton University has grown to include over 300 volunteer tutors from six universities who serve five New Jersey correctional facilities. Inmates who receive tutoring complete the GED with a 90 percent passing rate. “We hope to expand nationally in the next several years,” said Mr. Farrin, “and ultimately, through our programs, to revolutionize the state of prison education.” The goal is create a partnership with prison administrators and educators to help inmates prepare for life outside of prison.

The Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization. For more information please visit: www.peteygreene.org.