While spending a year and a half in a New Jersey prison on drug charges, Walter Fortson enrolled in a class offered by a local community college, knowing that the credits would change the way the world saw him. But he didn’t expect them to affect the way he thought about himself and his future.
“In prison, I realized that there is an incredible value to learning,” Fortson says.
Fortson, a 30-year-old from Philadelphia, dropped out of college prior to his incarceration, but his epiphany resulted in a reversal of his approach to education. While living in a halfway house awaiting parole in 2009, he enrolled at New Jersey’s Rutgers University and graduated with high honors. Later, he received the prestigious Truman Scholarship to study criminology at the University of Cambridge in England.
Fortson believes that educational opportunities for prisoners are key to giving them a chance in a justice system that “does a good job of dehumanizing people,” and so when he returned from overseas, he got busy — expanding upon work that he started as an undergrad, that brought Rutgers students into New Jersey prisons to tutor inmates.
It was tutoring, if not fate, that introduced Fortson to Jim Farrin, 78, a longtime businessman who had recently returned to Princeton, where he was a member of the university’s class of 1958. There, Farrin founded the Petey Greene program, which has students tutor prison inmates (some of whom are working toward their high-school equivalency degrees) three hours each week. Fortson started a chapter at Rutgers, and now serves as a regional field manager for the initiative, working to help bring more inmates closer to the educational transformation that he experienced.
He believes that tutoring the incarcerated has the power to change the attitudes of college students who provide lessons — and that putting a name and a face to the anonymous prisoners housed in our nation’s jails is something that’s essential in order to reform the criminal justice system. “You understand that everyone who goes to prison isn’t some serial rapist murderer that’s trying to kill you or break into your house,” Fortson explains.
Farrin and Fortson are correct about the transformative impact of the program: A 2013 New Jersey Department of Corrections study found that program participants have higher passing rates on high-school equivalency exams, while also demonstrating statistically significant improvements in reading and math.
More than 400 students have volunteered with the organization. Currently, 16 colleges and universities on the East Coast have Petey Greene programs and Princeton’s remains the largest, with around 100 volunteers. But Farrin and Fortson aren’t done; these pioneers aim to have Petey Greene programs in 100 schools by 2017.
The ongoing expansion has been made possible by an army of committed students who, much like Fortson, were changed in unexpected ways by prison tutoring. Those students, Grace Li, Shaina Watrous, and Joe Barrett, all classmates at Princeton who graduated in 2014, got involved with Petey Greene early in their time on campus, and they say the tutoring defined much of their college experience. “Prison reform became the thing that I cared about most,” Li says.
The recent alumni all work full-time as regional field managers (like Fortson) and serve alongside another former Princeton tutor, Sandra Knuth, to facilitate the initiative’s growth. Already, they’re seeing progress — Petey Greene is now active at 11 schools outside of New Jersey. But with each new chapter comes additional challenges.
Dealing with large, bureaucratic institutions is difficult to say the least, and catering to their needs has created tutoring programs that vary from the original model developed at Princeton. To make Petey Greene work in 100 schools, partner agreements for universities were recently created that include mandatory workshops on cultural humility, which help tutors understand their privilege and prevent misunderstandings that might damage the relationship between tutor and student. There is also a strict attendance policy: One unexcused absence and a tutor is out of the program.
The expansion is taking the program into some of the country’s most notorious correctional facilities. It is currently working to bring NYU and Columbia University undergrads to the Rikers Island New York City jail complex to tutor 16- and 17-year-olds. Li, who serves the New York region, says that program participants will likely include some teens recently removed from punitive segregation — the official term of what’s commonly referred to as solitary confinement. (In December, the New York City Department of Corrections ended the use of punitive segregation for adolescents.)
Before the official launch of Petey Greene at NYU, Li worked with a group of students who, as part of a class they took, held a theater workshop for incarcerated boys. When the semester was up, they looked to Petey Greene to stay involved, and in their enthusiasm and transformation, Li sees echoes of her own.
That passion led Li and her equally inspired classmates to not only advance Petey Greene, but to fight the injustices they observed in prisons through other channels, too. They founded the rapidly growing advocacy group Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) at Princeton, which remains closely linked to Petey Greene. Oftentimes, tutors who want to address bigger issues in criminal justice reform join SPEAR, and when student advocates want to get a hands-on experience with the issue, or feel like they are making a more concrete impact, they sign up to tutor with Petey Greene.
Both Petey Greene and SPEAR understand that education is the key to reform — something that Fortson can personally attest to. “[While incarcerated,] I was looking for redemption,” Fortson says, “and I felt like education was the most viable way to transcend the stigma of having a criminal conviction.”
(Homepage photo: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers/Getty Images)