Of the 600,000 people released from prison every year, over 70% will be rearrested within five years after release. Almost 50% will return to prison. Recidivism, or the rate at which formerly incarcerated people return to prison, is exceptionally high in the United States.
Compounding this problem is the even higher rate of incarceration: the United States has more people imprisoned per capita than any other country in the world. Numerous contributing factors have led to this including poverty, homelessness, structural inequality, and a lack of quality reentry programs for those released from prison. These factors often trap people in cycles of incarceration, which can have devastating effects on individuals and communities.
These staggering statistics has led activists to seek ways to help formerly incarcerated people lead stable lives and stay away from the justice system. Groups and organizations nationwide work hard to address the systemic issues that cause mass incarceration and heal the harms that have been done. One such organization with branches in Boston and Boston University is the Petey Greene Program.
Photo Credit: Petey Greene Program
The Petey Greene Program is dedicated to improving the educational opportunities of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people through a network of volunteer tutors. It is named for Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a prominent prison reform activist, television personality, and formerly incarcerated person. Petey Greene was born on January 3, 1931. He enlisted in the army at sixteen and then served as an Army medic in the Korean War. Seven years after his honorable discharge, Greene was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for armed robbery.
While imprisoned, he worked as the voice over the prison’s intercom, gaining support from prisoners and correctional officers alike. After his incarceration, Greene continued this path and eventually became one of the most popular and well-known Washington, D.C. radio hosts of his time. He won two Grammys and was invited to the White House under President Jimmy Carter.
Greene was also an influential activist involved in the United Planning Organization and a community center. On his radio show, Greene did not shy away from topics of race and incarceration. He has been credited with helping stop riots in D.C. after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 when he calmed crowds over the radio.
The founder of the Petey Greene Program, Charlie Puttkammer, met Greene through involvement in social work and the United Planning Organization. A graduate of Princeton University, Puttkammer recruited students from his alma mater to help tutor incarcerated individuals in the New Jersey area. The work spread, and now the Petey Greene Program has branches in seven states and Washington, D.C. Their Boston volunteer tutors are primarily college students and are drawn from Boston University, Tufts, Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, and other Massachusetts colleges and universities.
Photo Credit: Petey Greene Program
The Petey Greene program has several academic focuses. Most tutors focus on reading and essential math skills to prepare students for high school equivalency tests and higher education. However, many topics, such as reading comprehension and math, have contexts beyond education. These skills are essential in understanding housing contracts, loans, taxes, and other key functions to succeed in life. The program has also tutored students studying for workforce development certificates, such as HVAC and financial literacy.
In 2020, the Petey Greene Program launched its College Bridge program, which prepares incarcerated learners for college-level work. Through this program, incarcerated individuals can take a writing course with a university professor or graduate student following a curriculum developed by PGP.
The PGP works with incarcerated learners at different stages of their educational journey. “We work with a lot of students who are not quite ready to take the GED yet, so…we are supporting them on their literacy journey,” says Emma Morrissey, Director of Curriculum and Training at the Petey Greene Program.
In addition to preparing for GED and high school equivalency degrees, the Petey Greene Program supports adult basic education and the literacy and numeracy skills all people need. The tutoring relationship is not just about academics. “We really value tutors who are committed, so they’re there every week,” says Morrissey. “We value tutors who are justice-oriented in their work, who are focused on learning with the student.” Morrissey also says that building a trusting relationship is essential to effective tutoring. Therefore, the program asks volunteers to commit to a full academic year of tutoring, which allows this relationship to develop and is vital to the consistency of tutoring.
Training tutors to aid students in achieving their goals is critical as well. All tutors go through a program designed to reflect the Petey Greene Program’s ideals and instruct them on the history they are entering into. The training modules cover effective tutoring strategies and the challenges formerly incarcerated people face. Particularly throughout the pandemic, academic growth has been challenging to focus on. The Petey Greene Program has adapted to conduct many tutoring programs virtually, Sofer says, so that students can continue their educational journey.
“Focusing on the students’ goals and strengths and passions is one of the most important parts of the Petey Greene Program,” says Morrissey. “It’s great to meet students, to hear about their goals…to see progress towards their goals, and celebrate with them.”
The Biden administration and activists alike continue to make criminal justice reform a top priority. While major policy changes stall, community organizations continue to fill a needed niche in serving formerly incarcerated people and making a difference in neighborhoods across the nation.