- Associated Press - Sunday, November 20, 2016

CHESTERFIELD, N.J. (AP) - About a half-dozen students sat at their desks, listening as a guest speaker led them through a discussion about the election process and the combination of factors that made Donald Trump’s stunning victory possible.

To an outsider, it could have been any social studies classroom a week after the election, except that all the students wore the same prison-issued khaki uniforms and a tutor from Princeton University was leading the lesson.

Down the hall at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility’s learning center, a cluster of inmates worked through a chapter about latitude and longitude with the help of two tutors. In another classroom, a tutor worked one-on-one with an inmate on adding fractions with different denominators.

The four Princeton students are among dozens of volunteers in the Petey Greene Program who spend two hours a week in a state prison tutoring inmates working toward their high school diploma or equivalency.

The program began in 2008, in large part as a response to an increased need for tutors in the prisons’ short-staffed education programs.

“You have a teacher who has anywhere from 20 to 30 incarcerated people who have very different skill-sets and abilities … from people who have a second- or third-grade reading level to people who can get into Princeton,” executive director Jim Farrin told NJ.com (https://bit.ly/2fdeuZ6). “Tutors were very necessary.”

Petey Greene has since expanded and now has as many as 450 tutors working in 30 prisons and detention centers across the Northeast in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

In New Jersey, students from eight colleges and universities volunteer at either Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, Northern State Prison, Jones Farm Correctional Facility, South Woods State Prison and Southern State Prison.

Farrin said the program is mutually beneficial. Students are given an opportunity to venture outside the bubble of campus life and make a real difference in someone’s life. The inmates - many of whom have few, if any, visitors - get the individualized attention they need to prepare themselves for life outside the cinder-block halls of the jail.

“Education is the ticket to a successful re-entry and also it does marvelous things for the people who are incarcerated who suddenly feel that they are worth something and they want to accomplish something,” Farrin said.

Studies have shown that prison education programs cut crime and prison costs by helping inmates return home and lead law-abiding lives.

Farrin pointed to a study by the nonprofit RAND Corp., which found that for every dollar spent on inmate education, the government saved $4 to $5 in costs associated with re-incarceration.

At Garden State, the inmates - the majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 29 - are serving time for robbery, weapons and drug-related offenses, assault, murder and other felonies.

A 21-year-old inmate, who only wished to be identified as Santos, arrived with some credits from his home school district and is now only days away from receiving his high school diploma.

“I’ll walk out of here with something,” he said. “It wasn’t time wasted.”

Next to him, 21-year-old Eli Rosa-Andino was working one-on-one with Princeton senior Hannah Vester on math.

“I’ve been seeing some people that just sit there and do nothing because they really don’t know nothing, but when (the tutors) come in, they give them more guidance,” Rosa-Andino said. “They know that they’re going to get help and they’re not going to be made fun of.”

The tutors jump in wherever they’re needed, whether it’s helping them with remedial math and language skills or high school social studies, science and English.

On Monday, sophomore Angela Wu stood at the front of the classroom for the first time, leading the inmates in a timely lesson about the election. Though felons are prohibited from voting while in prison or on parole, she says they were still engaged in the discussion.

“A lot of them were more aware than we might’ve expected,” Wu said. “They are definitely not isolated from the news events that go on.”

Sophomore Addie Gilson, a first-year volunteer, said one of the more challenging parts has been figuring out what the inmates know and don’t know.

“You’ll be talking to someone about a math problem and you’ll be solving for a variable … and then you realize after 10 minutes that they don’t even know what a variable is,” she said. “So you kind of have to backtrack and explain very rudimentary subjects and concepts to sort of fill in these gaps. But then this person who doesn’t know what a variable is can do better mental math than I can.”

Though the tutors are helping the inmates with their schoolwork, senior Annie Kartheiser said their contribution is less about the actual material.

“This is not really what they’re going to take away from me,” she said, pointing to the chapter about longitude and latitude. “It’s more about showing them that people want to help and giving them other things to talk about. I think there’s a certain novelty in us that we bring that is appreciated.”

Christina Salerno, one of the prison teachers, said the tutors have been a huge help in her classroom.

“The young men really do enjoy it,” she said. “They get to see a different perspective of life, something that they’re not really exposed to in the inner city - someone young, their age, successful, going to school and with goals.”

The tutors all say that the program has given them a unique perspective into the country’s criminal justice system - more than any course or book could teach them.

“It’s an issue that’s easy to ignore,” said Vester, who has been volunteering with Petey Greene since her freshman year. “I wish that more people could have the opportunity to have some sort of window into the impact of the way our criminal justice system currently works on many people in the country. It’s hard to get that perspective obviously because most people don’t spend time in prison.”

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Information from: NJ Advance Media.

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