Of the 2.2 million people in prison in the United States, more than 40 percent will return to prison within three years of being released, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
But prisoners who receive an education are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, according to a study by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank.
Katherine Walden, a senior human development and community engagement major, is working toward using education to reduce recidivism, or the tendency of formerly incarcerated people to return to prison. Walden works as a tutor at the Federal Detention Center on Arch Street near 7th and VisionQuest’s Lee Preparatory Academy, a youth reintegration center, in North Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood.
Walden is a volunteer with Temple’s chapter of the Petey Greene Program, which recruits college tutors to work one-on-one with students of all ages who are incarcerated. The tutoring program also helps incarcerated people work toward receiving a GED certificate.
The program began in 2008 as a way to supplement underfunded educational programs in prisons. The first collaboration was with 28 volunteers from Princeton University, who started tutoring at a prison in Bordentown, New Jersey. Since then, the program has grown to include nearly 30 universities from Washington D.C. to Massachusetts.
The Pennsylvania chapter recruits volunteer tutors from Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, St. Joseph’s University and Haverford College.
Emma Sindelar, the regional manager for the Pennsylvania chapter, said the program works with prisons that already have educational programs in place.
“[Education] is not always the top priority of a facility, so we hope to use our tutors to support programs that are already in place at no cost,” Sindelar said.
Sindelar recruits college tutors to work with students at the four Petey Greene-affiliated facilities in Pennsylvania: VisionQuest, the Federal Detention Center, the Glen Mills Schools in Delaware County and the Philadelphia Prison System, which is comprised of six different facilities.
Walden and Anthony Henderson, a senior adult and organizational development major, are the leaders of Temple’s Petey Greene chapter. Together they organize group meetings where Temple tutors can share stories and recruit new members. The Temple chapter currently has 25 active tutors, up from 10 last semester, Walden said.
Henderson works as a tutor at VisionQuest once a week. He said he was surprised by the low skill level of incarcerated students when he first started a year ago.
“Just the basic skills, like multiplying when you’re doing algebra, you assume they know how to do [it], but you have to pull back a couple layers just to start or attempt a problem,” he said.
“This isn’t necessarily getting a second chance for a lot of [students], this is a genuine first chance,” said Sindelar, who also works as a tutor once a week at VisionQuest.
Walden and Henderson have both seen successful participants graduate and complete their educational programs, which includes earning a GED.
Walden once had a student who became “very dedicated” to her schoolwork after a few weeks of their one-on-one tutoring sessions. She eventually went on to graduate the program and begin to search for a job and housing.
“This is why we are here,” Walden said. “This is what we are trying to help them reach, and it was sort of awesome to see someone reach it in the time that I was there. It gave me hope to see it with all of the other students that I’ve tutored.”
Sindelar said the program isn’t just focused on helping students graduate, but destigmatizing what it means to be incarcerated.
“And part of what we do, I would argue that is just as important as the actual services that we provide … is the human-to-human contact of the tutors going into a facility and entering a world that most people are very unaware of,” Sindelar said.
“We really want with this program to show that these students, people, deserve a second chance and that everybody should be educated and have an opportunity and go back out in their communities and make a positive impact,” Walden said. “We see the people we work with as students, and not for the situations that landed them in their current situation.”
Sindelar hopes the program can be a way to remove some of the obstacles for incarcerated individuals.
“When you sit down with a student and you’re just working on a problem, all barriers, all walls that were there before are broken down,” Sindelar said.
Kait Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.