Princeton’s Petey Greene Program

Education plays a key role in reducing prison recidivism

By Ilene Dube | Photos courtesy of The Petey Greene Program

A cross dangles from Erich Kussman’s neck, just below the white band of his pastor’s collar. From the pulpit at St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton, the 38-year-old speaks passionately about social justice, advocating for prison reform and ways for the formerly incarcerated to re-enter society. He reminds us that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Kussman wants to rewrite the amendment to abolish all forms of slavery.

Kussman talks from his heart — as recently as 2013 he was inmate 380556c in the New Jersey state prison system, serving 12 years for armed robbery.

It was thanks to the Petey Greene Program that Kussman, who grew up with no father and a drug-addicted mother who also served time, was able to turn his life around.

Erich Kussman and Petey Greene co-founder Jim Farrin at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s 2019 Graduation.

The Petey Greene Program, founded at Princeton University in 2008, recruits, selects, and trains volunteer students to serve as tutors, helping prisoners along the path toward earning a high school diploma or equivalency. They meet one-on-one for an hour and a half. Students gain insight into the humanity of inmates, and learn that these prisoners have aspirations and, if given another chance, can make something better of their lives.

The program is named for Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who served time in prison and went on to become a media personality in Washington, D.C. It has spread to 29 colleges and universities across the Northeast, including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. In 2018, the Petey Greene Program had nearly 1,000 volunteers from 30 college campuses and surrounding communities, working in 46 facilities, and provided 13,195 hours of tutoring.

The program’s first fundraising event will be held at Nassau Presbyterian Church on Thursday, September 26, with a conversation between Princeton native and Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land, First Man) and Roger Durling, executive director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

He Sends College Students to Prison

Petey Greene co-founder (along with Charles Puttkammer) Jim Farrin is known as “the man who sends college students to prison.” He first examined the juvenile justice system in his senior thesis at Princeton in 1958. A political science major, Farrin went on to earn an MBA from Stanford and pursued a successful career as a corporate executive. When he retired, at 72, Farrin’s thoughts returned to incarceration. He was thinking about how two-thirds of those released from prison return. Farrin held a passionate belief that education was the key in enabling these individuals to go on to a more rewarding life.

According to a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation, inmates who participate in an educational program are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison. And they’re also more likely to find a job after their release.

Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle is connected to this story through his mother, Celia Chazelle, who has been teaching incarcerated students for 10 years, and who served as one of the original Petey Greene coordinators at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

“My mom has been passionate about prison reform for years, but I’ve never heard her as excited about a program as she has been about Petey Greene,” says Damien Chazelle, from Paris where he was working over the summer. “The amount the program has grown in such a short span of time is truly inspiring, and there’s nothing like it in its aim to unite universities and prisons, students and inmates, with a concrete, shared goal.”

“We live in a harshly punitive society, one in which it often seems that forgiveness only extends to the wealthiest members,” Chazelle continues. “Anything that can be done to place the emphasis on rehabilitation and humanization within prison, instead of on antiquated and childish ideas of punishment, is a step in the right direction.” 

Celia Chazelle

Celia Chazelle, a professor of early medieval history and a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, grew up in a politically aware household in the U.S. — her father was English, her mother Canadian, and she married French computer science professor Bernard Chazelle. She earned her doctorate at Yale University and became aware that a disproportionate number of black males are locked up, often for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses, and that sentences are often too long and don’t prepare an inmate with a path to reintegrate into society. She decided to do something about it.

More than a decade ago she began volunteering at the Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility in Bordentown, a medium to maximum security facility for ages 18 to 35. She taught philosophy, literature, ethics, and social justice to inmates. Chazelle’s initial involvement was tied to a research project, comparing the contemporary U.S. criminal justice system with medieval penal systems.

She contributed an essay on how tougher drug legislation has led to an upsurge in the prison population to a book, Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (Routledge, 2011). She found the judicial system treated prisoners too harshly and didn’t offer education or vocational training. The book explores what medieval practices can teach us about integrating prisoners into the wider community.

“Medieval settlements had no prisons, so they had to find other ways to foster social order,” Chazelle says.

London is known as the birthplace of modern imprisonment, according to the website of the Crime Museum in Washington, D.C. The original purpose of confining a person within a prison was not to punish them, but to keep perpetrators detained until the actual punishment could be carried out. People who were found guilty of crimes would be stripped of their personal freedoms. Inmates were often forced to do hard labor while they were incarcerated and to live in harsh conditions. There was no attempt made at rehabilitation. Corporal punishment and public humiliation, as well as lack of food and water, led to anarchy, and inadequate facilities led to the spread of disease.

The Quakers established the first true penitentiary in Philadelphia. The word comes from penitent, and was designed to inspire feelings of remorse and guilt. Inmates lived in solitary confinement to separate them from corrupting influences.

Inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary were given a half hour in the morning and again in the evening in a private exercise cell with fresh air and sunlight. A greenhouse allowed inmates to grow fruits and vegetables, and they engaged in activities such as weaving and mural painting. But soon overcrowding resulted in these rehabilitative spaces being converted to cell space.

Photo by Mike Peters of Montclair State University

No Justice in Criminal Justice

When Chazelle began teaching at Albert C. Wagner, “the Department of Corrections still had a lockdown mentality and didn’t want people from the outside interacting with prisoners,” she recounts. She went to Labyrinth Books to read more about education in prisons and met someone from the Petey Greene Program, then getting underway. She signed on to become a tutor. Driving along the rural road to get there, Chazelle looked to the right and saw white people on the sidewalks and in the Little League field; to the left, behind barbed wire fences, she saw a sea of African American young men. “I was struck,” says Chazelle. “You can’t tell me that 90 percent of crime in this area is committed by black men.”

The prisoners at Wagner are “100 percent poor,” she says, “with public defenders. If they were from wealthy families they would have received lesser penalties.”

Shortly after she began tutoring she realized there was an interest in more educational programming and began teaching college-level courses. She wrote to the Sunshine Lady Foundation, started by Warren Buffet’s sister Doris, and got funding to bring six college courses to the Wagner facility, partnering with TCNJ and Mercer County Community College. Soon some of Chazelle’s colleagues joined her in teaching, offering credit courses. She got additional funding from the Bonner and Ford foundations, and now inmates at Wagner can earn an associate’s degree from Raritan Valley Community College.

Petey Greene tutors help inmates earn their GED, a prerequisite for the college level coursework. “At every level to which inmates progress, recidivism plummets,” says Celia Chazelle. “And for those who earn their associates degree behind bars, only a small percentage are reincarcerated. When inmates are in classes, instead of in cells, the prison is a much calmer place.”

In Chazelle’s experience, many inmates are motivated by educational opportunities: it gets them out of the cell and offers a chance to interact with others. Some may have learning disabilities or mental health issues, or come from disrupted backgrounds. “I have to adjust my teaching style but sometimes I see a level of energy and excitement, a drive and passion, among the prison population that we don’t see at colleges where students come from families in which a college education is the norm,” she says. “We have lively discussions and it’s a joy to be there. My eyes have opened to a culture I knew nothing about. In reading a book like Lord of the Flies, these students come up with a new angle, for example, making comparisons to inner city gang life.”

Is she ever frightened to walk into the prison? “Never. The security is very good. We’re behind large glass windows facing a hall patrolled by officers, and if there was ever a problem it would be easy to get assistance. The program is a privilege for students with a good record, and if there were the slightest infraction they would lose this right. We have lively, frank, and open discussions, and if they think a book is boring they are not afraid to say so.”

When she first told Damien she was volunteering — he was in college at the time — “he was scared. ‘You’re doing what?’ But as time went on he became interested and started talking to his friends about it.”

Seeing how Princeton students grew from their Petey Greene experiences, Celia Chazelle made it available to TCNJ students as well. Volunteers are not told what their students have been incarcerated for. “It’s better not to know,” says Chazelle, “because that could affect how you interact with them. Petey Greene rules are that the inmates are to be treated as human beings.”

Volunteers go through training that takes them through different scenarios, how to interact, how to shake hands, what names to use, even what to wear.

Erich Kussman became enamored of the program when he learned that Princeton University students were voluntarily going into prisons to help people like him learn. Today, when Kussman speaks from his pulpit, it sounds like the thing he was born to do. “The Department of Corrections doesn’t do any correcting,” he says. “I had a good network of people who saw something in me.”

Among that network was a chaplain, Emmanuel Bourjolly. “He was an older Haitian man who called me his son,” says Kussman. “I was teaching myself Greek, and he laughed at my pronunciation but said that, one day, I’d go to Princeton Theological Seminary.” And indeed Kussman did, earning a master’s degree there after earning a bachelor’s degree from Pillar College in Newark (in three years, at the top of his class).

“True reform allows people to be educated,” says Kussman, who had dropped out of high school at age 14. “Petey Greene showed me a world outside of the box and gave me the tools to see on the other side of the wall.”