This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
It’s Friday afternoon. Students in various shades of preppy colors are pouring out of the university’s gates for the weekend. The patios in front of the restaurants are buzzing with cocktail chatter; there’s a long line at the movie theater.
But I am climbing a rickety staircase in a two-story clapboard building just off Nassau Street. There, amid the disarray in a rabbit warren of small offices, I will talk to two university students who once a week leave their manicured campus to spend a day behind bars tutoring young men and women who are their age but who are held in a nearby prison.
“I’ve been doing this for a year now,” says Bobo, a curly-haired first-year student from Macedonia, “and it’s the best choice I’ve made. Everyone here always talks about opportunities, the future. The amount of help we receive is incredible. We are so privileged. But the people I meet in prison have had none of these advantages and all the disadvantages of poverty and despair. So the basic skills have to be built for the first time, from the ground up. One student I had could not divide 20 by 4 — but has a daughter who is 5 years old. I will prepare him for a high school diploma.”
The Petey Greene Program was started a decade ago by two members of the Princeton Class of 1958, Jim Farrin and Charlie Puttkammer. It is named for a poor black man who went to jail for armed robbery and, while imprisoned, became a disc jockey and later a radio show host. The idea has since spread beyond New Jersey to six other states and 30 universities on the East Coast with nearly 400 volunteers.
Another tutor, Natasha, joins us, also wearing a Petey Greene shirt. Under her arm she holds a thick atlas of the stars. She talks about a student she met in prison who wants to see the stars, to understand the universe. “My student wants to know everything about the universe,” she says, “but there is no library there. Also no internet, by the way.”
I ask her about the Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ efforts to make jail sentences more frequent and harsher. She shakes her head. “In the United States, 2.2 million people are caught, half for non-violent offenses. All the prisoners will waste their time. This does not help them and does not help society.”
“But I do not do it for them alone,” she continues. “I have become a better person myself. All my prejudices have been thrown away. And I discovered my own passion for teaching. During one of my lessons I noticed that one of my students who was struggling with poetry had been writing rap texts. So great! I want to become an English teacher now.”
I ask Bobo and Natasha if they are ever afraid for their safety in the prison. “No!” they say together, laughing. “Only our parents are.”
I talk to the program’s co-founder, Jim Farrin. He believes that the program changes the lives of both the prisoners and the tutors. “You don’t have to go as far away as Africa or to the Middle East to give back to the world,” he tells me. “You can go 35 miles away to a prison where people are in desperate need of contact and further education.” He says that two of every three people in prison will return after their release with another conviction. “A business would not stand for a failure rate that high,” he says. “But taking just two educational courses reduces recidivism by 43 percent.”
Speaking for himself, Bobo feels he receives as much as he gives. “This is not a gift we magnanimously bestow on them,” he says. “We have the reward ourselves of being part of their growth process, watching these young people grow and achieve.”
Every year, they tell me, the students who receive their GED or high school degrees go to a special graduation ceremony with their families and friends. “There is not a dry eye in the room,” Jim says.
“It’s nice that you give them a second chance,” I say to them.
“Second?” says Bobo. “We are not giving them their second chance. We are giving them their first chance.”
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published in last January in Amsterdam. It will be released in the United States on July 11. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.