March 2, 2016

Helping Prison Inmates Earn GEDs, University Students Make a Difference


A TWO-WAY STREET: An inmate at Albert Wagner Correctional Facility in Bordentown works towards his GED in weekly sessions under the guidance of a Princeton University student tutor as part of the Petey Greene Prison Assistance Program. The program has expanded rapidly over the past eight years and now boasts 120 student volunteers from Princeton and many more throughout New Jersey and beyond. (Photo Courtesy of Petey Greene Prison Assistance Program)

The United States has more people in prison than any other country in the world — upwards of 2.2 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. And the experience and consequences of incarceration leave formerly imprisoned people even more likely to remain poor and marginalized.

Although the U.S. spends more than $86 billion on corrections each year, it provides limited resources to facilitate re-entry. Ninety percent of incarcerated people will be released, but 40 percent will return to prison within three years. High recidivism weakens families and communities, perpetuating social and economic equalities.

The Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. (1931-1984), a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence to become a notable Washington D.C. media personality, is working hard to combat these daunting realities of prison life. Just eight years after its inception in Princeton, the program now enlists as tutors 120 Princeton University volunteers, undergraduates and graduate students, and many more volunteer tutors in colleges and universities in other parts of New Jersey and beyond.

Once a week the Princeton tutors travel to the A.C. Wagner and Garden State Correctional Facilities near Bordentown, where they work one-on-one with inmates, in math, reading and writing, helping them to prepare for the GED high school equivalency exam.

“It has a huge impact,” said Jim Farrin, the 79-year-old executive director of Petey Greene who after a successful career in sales and marketing helped expand the program. “It now has more members than any other extracurricular organization at Princeton, and many more volunteers throughout the state and also in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.”

Himself a Princeton University graduate who sees his leadership of Petey Greene as the third “giving back “ chapter of his life, following his “education’ and “achievement” chapters, Mr. Farrin described the effects of the program, “It has an obvious impact on the students inside the facilities because we’re helping them get their GED, and in doing that you literally change the lives of people. They feel proud to go to a graduation ceremony where they get the degree. There’s hardly a dry eye in the place.”

Emphasizing how education affects rates of recidivism Mr. Farrin added, “For every dollar invested in prison education, in three years you get five dollars back in reduced recidivism. That aspect of the program is fantastic and wonderful.”

Impact On Student Tutors

Even more striking, however, may be the impact of the program on the university student volunteers. “What most surprised me in this program,” Mr. Farrin reflected, “is the effect it’s had on the tutors from the colleges and universities. They say ‘I never knew this population existed. We must do something about correcting some of the injustices in the criminal justice system.’ They get first-hand experience helping someone — ‘Hey, I helped this guy get his GED, Jim — It felt so good’ — and a lot of them go into teaching. A Rhodes Scholar who tutored with us said, ‘I want to do something that’s going to make a difference in the criminal justice system in the United States.’”

Lawrence Liu, a Petey Greene volunteer since 2014, is a Woodrow Wilson School major in his senior year, focusing on law, legal history, criminal justice, and legal reform in China and the U.S. He echoed Mr. Farrin’s assessment of the program, “As a Princeton student, someone just on campus working in this beautiful environment, going off campus and working with a community that is isolated from us and seeing that they are not so different from us is a powerful experience.”

“The tutoring is very helpful for our students,” Mr. Liu continued, “but at the same time those students are making a big difference for the volunteers. That two-way street is something really special about Petey Greene because it helps to break down boundaries between people and communities in a way that can’t be done by sitting in a classroom or watching it on TV.”

Mr. Liu, who looks forward to graduate school next year in order to study China law and legal reform, described the “jarring experience” of first walking into a correctional facility. “You walk into the prison and they take away your ID card and phone. There are bars everywhere and slamming doors. It’s built to be a place where you feel uncomfortable to highlight that the people there are different from you.

“But I remember first walking back and working with the guys and realizing that a lot of them are a lot like me. I’ve worked with guys on essay writing and you listen to their stories and you hear what they want to do when they get out. A lot of them want to start businesses. A lot of them just want to go back to their families whether that’s their kids or their parents. They have dreams and aspirations of what they want to be and they have a lot of the same interests as anyone else would have.”

In his fifth semester of volunteering with Petey Greene every Tuesday morning for about three hours, Mr. Liu explained that the program had helped to shape what he will be doing after he graduates this spring. “Petey Greene is something that I’ll carry with me in whatever I do,” he said. “In academics it’s easy to do a lot of work on your own — to sit in an office somewhere or go to the library, but Petey Greene actually taught me how you interact with the communities that you’re writing about, so if I’m writing about legal reform in China or the U.S., it’s not just about the academic discourse. It’s about people who are actually being affected by the laws and legal institutions that I’m researching. So how do I connect with those people? How do I lift their voices up and make their stories heard? The people at Petey Greene have taught me how to do that and also the importance of doing that.”

Shaping Their Futures

Regional Field Manager Sam Thoma is in charge of making the program run smoothly, but she continues to tutor as well. “Petey Greene is exciting,” she said. “Education is a preventative measure to avoid recidivism, to keep people from going back into the system. It’s a powerful way to rehabilitate people. It’s been extremely rewarding to me.”

A 2014 graduate of Villanova, where she studied prison reform and criminal justice, Ms. Thoma also emphasized the importance of the two-way street between prisoner-students and university tutors. “Exposing those university students to this program gets them thinking and will have a powerful influence in shaping their futures,” she explained. “You think you’re volunteering for someone else and then you find that you’ve been impacted in powerful ways. Two of my students have families, and they’ve said that that’s their motivation. They want to set an example for their kids. I’ve been working with a student who, for the first time, is working for his GED. As a political science major to see in the real world the ramifications of my studies is a valuable experience.”

The program requires five hours of tutoring training for its volunteers. After that they participate in custody training where the correctional facilities — either Albert Wagner or Garden State for Princeton University tutors — provide orientation about what goes on in a prison.

The benefits of education in prison have been widely documented, particularly by a 2014 Rand megastudy that found that participation in an educational experience increases an inmate’s chances of finding a job upon release by 13 percent and recidivism drops by 30 percent. Petey Greene, which has expanded its network of colleges and universities and rapidly increased the number of its volunteers while increasing its budget from $60,000 in 2013 to $200,000 in 2015, is looking forward to expanding to many more universities and prisons nationwide in the next few years.

Commenting on their remarkable growth, Mr. Farrin stated that the Petey Greene program is “riding the wave” of national concern about the criminal justice system and attention to the importance of prison education. “There’s a lot of focus on secondary education and getting degrees for people who have made a mistake and are in prison.”