Within three years of release, nearly 75% of former inmates find themselves back in prison. Although the United States spends more than $86 billion on corrections each year, prisoners receive minimal tools for successful re-entry into society. The Petey Greene Program provides free tutoring by volunteers, who are primarily college students, to educate the incarcerated. Most American prisoners, according to peteygreene.org, “are disproportionately from minority, low-income, and socially marginalized communities” who do not have access to the education needed to break this vicious cycle of recidivism. This non-profit attempts to decrease that number significantly through its education initiative.
Charlie Puttkammer recognized this problem and set out to help. Along with Jim Farrin, the program blossomed, first at Princeton University, and later at colleges as far away as Connecticut.
Puttkammer picked up his interest in prison reform from his father who was a criminal law professor at the University of Chicago. Though this passion began to grow in graduate school, it wasn’t until later that his interest led him to volunteer in the District of Columbia Poverty Program. “Among my responsibilities was Police Community Relations,” he recounted. “From the police work, I had many meaningful experiences which in a minor way made me a critic of the police while riding along with them.” This made him consider alternative approaches to the penal system.
It was also during this time that Charlie worked for a program that offered bonds to newly released convicts. That was where he met Petey Greene, who the program is named for. “I do claim the idea, but Petey deserves the credit. He spoke so fluently… about his upbringing and his experience in prison.”
Puttkammer then began to think about matching students with convicts for tutoring. Although it seemed promising at times, the program didn’t gain momentum until 2007, when he met with fellow Princeton alumni, including Farrin. It was only after Farrin joined the project that it began to grow. He nurtured the program and made contact with the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, which serves as a participating prison in the program today.
As Farrin explained, they take quantitative measurements very seriously. Though they use other tests, they “measure…development primarily through GED’s, which are the greatest indicator of academic achievement.’’ He finds that not only do the inmates learn a great deal but the tutors do as well.
“I knew that it would be great for the student inmates because they’d be getting an education… The tutors feel that it opens up a new perspective outside of the Princeton bubble.” His personal dream is that someday, someone from Petey Greene will make a significant change in the current system of mass incarceration. Compared to the overall average of 75% of inmates who go back to prison within three years of their release, the rate among inmates who receive educational services plummets to 13%. Through the Petey Greene Program’s efforts towards enriching the minds of inmates, the program is on its way to fulfilling Mr. Farrin’s dream.
(Copyright 2017 Janice Negvesky)