By Walter Fortson
Hannah Gu, a chemical engineering student at Princeton University, is looking forward to attending medical school in the fall of 2014.But she has another passion that isn’t typical of your average doctor-in-training: Lu is a volunteer tutor in New Jersey youth state prisons. Under the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program at Princeton, Lu and other students travel to prisons weekly to assist students in prison trying to earn a GED or college credits.
“They’re kids who were just kids, forced into this lifestyle, but they’re really great people. They’re just like me!” said Lu, as she recounted her experience to Princeton alumni interested in supporting a national expansion of the Petey Greene program.
Lu is also one of five founding members of the student organization, SPEAR, which is an acronym for Students for Prison Education and Reform. Through SPEAR, Princeton students and alumni are looking for ways to start a Petey Greene chapter in as many colleges and universities as possible across the United States.
Founder of the Petey Greene program, and 1958 Princeton alumnus, Charlie Puttkammer, spoke of his relationship with Petey Greene, the program’s namesake.
“He was born in the poorest part of Washington, D.C. and had a relative in Alcatraz,” Puttkammer stated as he began his introduction. “He had no formal education, was an alcoholic, and a burglar. He was sent to Lorton Penitentiary, where he developed a unique ability: he could talk, tell stories, meaningful stories.”
Upon release, Puttkammer met Greene and they immediately became good friends. With Puttkammer’s help, Greene would go on to be an influential radio personality, a captivating TV show host, and the conduit between politicians and the black community. Greene died at the age of 83 and 3,000 people attended his funeral.
“In his honor, we called this program the Petey Greene program. He was in inspiration to us all,” said Puttkammer.
The organization’s Executive Director, Jim Farrin, 1958 graduate of Princeton, chimed in on the strategic expansion plan as well. He stated that at the outset of the program in 2008, 75 percent of inmates in Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility were either illiterate or somewhat illiterate. As of 2013, students who received tutoring in English showed an improvement two times greater than those who did not. Furthermore, students who received math tutoring experienced a rate of improvement six times greater than those who did not.
From 2008 through 2012, the number of Petey Greene volunteers grew from 26 to 218.
“This is all done at no cost to the prison,” said Farrin. Excited by these statistics, a member of the audience shouted, “That’s amazing!”
Farrin replied, “You just wait and see where we are five years from now!”
With supporters, funding, and volunteers, the Petey Greene program hopes to be the top prison education program in the country. Farrin, Puttkammer, and other ’58 alumni on the board of directors have outlined several neighboring states in their strategic expansion plan. After securing funding and hiring staff, the expansion is expected to begin as early as next year.
Walter is one of JPI's research interns. He just graduated from Rutgers and will attend the University of Cambridge to study at the Institute of Criminology. Learn more about Walter here.