On any given week day, you’ll likely see students in bright green t-shirts in classrooms of four of Philadelphia’s correctional facilities: Camden County, Federal Detention Center, Philadelphia Department of Prisons, and SCI Chester. Students from four colleges in Philly volunteer weekly as tutors as part of The Petey Greene Program, a nonprofit organization that works to support the academic achievements of incarcerated folks. I have personally been involved for the past two years while at Penn, and it has easily been the most rewarding and transformative experience I’ve had during my college years. The relationships that we are able to form with our incarcerated students are enriching and humanizing, not to mention the academic progress many participants or "tutees" are able to make as they work toward their GEDs and high school diplomas.
Operating since 2008, the nonprofit is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., who went on to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington D.C. history after serving several years in prison. Petey Greene envisions a world in which all incarcerated people have access to high quality academic programs. By partnering with colleges, universities, and correctional facilities along the East Coast, the program has been bringing primarily college students (and some community members) to tutor in local prisons and jails. Tutors help their students in just about all subjects, ranging from elementary level English to GED test prep. While some tutors work one-on-one with students in study hall settings, others assist teachers in their classrooms. Having teaching support is a huge help, as many tutors are able to give students individual attention that they would not otherwise receive.
As Petey Greene’s Philadelphia Regional Manager Emma Sindelar says, “Reentry should start the day you get to prison. That’s a big part of our mission, to support those people who want to receive their education while in prison so that they can hopefully continue their education once they are released or that they achieve a GED or high school diploma while they’re incarcerated to make reentry easier.” The organization believes education to be one of the main solutions to break the cycle of incarceration, particularly in helping returning citizens gain employment. Providing academic support is often quite empowering for the students as well, as reaching their academic goals can be a large and positive incentive during incarceration.
While some tutors join Petey Greene because they or their loved ones have been personally affected by mass incarceration, for others like me, this is the first time we are stepping foot inside correctional facilities and encountering the injustices of the criminal justice system, and so it is as much a learning experience for tutors as well. “The biggest takeaways for tutors are having that person-to-person connection in an environment that college students may not have entered otherwise and in doing that, facing some of the realities of what our criminal justice system looks like because it is so removed from many of our lives,” says Sindelar. Petey Greene also places a large emphasis on making sure tutors are aware of their privileges and biases as educated college students while navigating correctional environments.
The feedback that Petey Greene receives most from incarcerated students is to send more tutors, more often. Most tutees value not only the tutors’ academic support and encouragement but also the human connection to someone else on the outside. “For tutees, I hope that they feel that someone cares and is coming in to work with them, to support their academic goals, to be a tutor for them and to develop a professional relationship,” says Sindelar. “I hope that the tutees also feel like they are able to make progress with their own academic goals with the support of tutors who can provide one-on-one support in ways that teachers may not have the capacity to do.” Many of Petey Greene’s tutees have gone on to earn degrees during and post-incarceration, and the organization hopes to continue expanding its operations in order to support more incarcerated students in Philadelphia and beyond.