Lydia Brewer remembers the first week she tutored someone who was incarcerated and couldn’t read a kindergarten-level book in English. By the end of the spring semester, Brewer said he was able to read paragraphs in English very well.
Brewer, a senior Africology and African American studies major, is the diversity, inclusion and engagement co-chair at Petey Greene Temple, an organization that connects college students with tutoring opportunities at correctional facilities.
Brewer is an “English as a Second Language” volunteer at State Correctional Institution in Chester, and she is among 15 Temple students who, through Petey Greene, will support the academic achievement of incarcerated people through volunteer tutoring programs this fall.
In 2016, Temple University started a Petey Greene chapter for students to volunteer for two to three hours a week at one of four partner correctional facilities in the Philadelphia area.
The program is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, a TV and radio personality in the 1960s who was incarcerated and later became an advocate for prisoners’ rights. The program seeks to improve educational conditions in prisons, something that has diminished in the past decades.
In 1994, Congress prohibited prisoners from receiving federal Pell Grants, significantly reducing education programs in correctional facilities. In 2014, 70 percent of people in prison expressed a desire to enroll in an academic program, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Aurora Trainor, a senior public health major and president of the Petey Greene chapter at Temple, said incarcerated people gain a lot of confidence from the tutoring program, especially because some of them consistently struggled in school.
“Education is the great solution to so many societal ills like poverty, homelessness and reincarceration,” Trainor added.
Only about half of incarcerated adults have a high school degree or its equivalent, and employment rates are often low before incarceration as a result of limited education, low job skill levels, and the prevalence of physical and mental health problems, the National Reentry Resource Center reported.
Trainor said there is not a lot of government support in educational resources at these facilities because the results of the program aren’t instantly visible.
“You see the benefits down the line in lower reincarnation rates, higher job attainment and higher education attainment, but because you don’t see it for sometimes years, I think it’s really hard for the government and these facilities to put the money upfront,” Trainor said.
Ninety percent of incarcerated people will be released, but 40 percent will return to prison within three years, according to the Petey Greene Program, but a 2013 study found incarcerated people who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison, according to the RAND Corporation.
Brewer said people need to be more compassionate toward incarcerated people, especially when it comes to providing educational resources.
“The system works against people, and the second they have that number written on their chest, they are written off as an object,” she added.
Trainor said she often thinks about a young man she tutored at Glen Mills School, a youth detention center in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, who was excited to go to Temple University Hospital for jaw surgery.
“Just imagining the excitement of getting surgery was heartbreaking,” Trainor said. “It made me realize how important programs like Petey Greene are in making the day-to-day lives of children and adults who are incarcerated a little bit more manageable hopefully.”
Catresa Meyers, an assistant criminal justice professor and advisor for Temple’s Petey Greene chapter, said students benefit from viewing incarcerated people with a different perspective.
“It’s not just about volunteering and tutoring but about community awareness and connecting with a community which students may not be aware of,” Meyers said.
There’s a stigma toward people going into prisons and working with incarcerated people, Brewer added. She said prisoners look forward to participating in the program just as much as students, so they would not jeopardize that privilege in anyway.
“I’ve always felt really safe going in there and talking to the men I work with,” Brewer said. “I feel more objectified walking on campus than I do walking in the prison.”