It was around 2:30 p.m. on Monday, March 20, 2016 when a handful of Montclair State students arrived at Northern State Prison in Newark. Although they sat in the visitor waiting area, they weren’t there to visit loved ones, but rather strangers.
In bright green t-shirts, students Joe Wasowski, Parm Singh, Koedi Shakir and Munajj Khan navigated prison rituals. To get to the medium security section of the prison, the students passed through a metal detector, then through large heavy doors that echoed loudly after closing behind them, and into a courtyard. A tall chain link fence stretched as far as the narrow pathway guiding them in. On the other side of the fence were incarcerated men. Dressed in khaki shirts and pants, some played basketball and others chatted amongst themselves, enjoying the pleasantly warm weather on the first day of spring.
The students’ travels didn’t lead them to a visiting area where inmates would normally entertain their guests, but instead, they arrived at a library, one that had the resemblance and feel of a school classroom.
A thick blue border that represented the ocean was painted below the edges of the ceiling and stretched along the perimeter of the room. Colorful fish swam throughout the border and like any other library there were books resting on bookshelves that leaned against the walls of the room. One book visible on a shelf appeared to be a legal handbook or guide. The bright light of the classroom created a welcoming learning environment and rectangle and circular tables were spread a couple of feet from each other.
For the next three hours the students were tutors and the inmates were their students. This rare arrangement is the work of The Petey Greene Program: a non-profit organization that pairs college students with inmates and allows them to enter prison as tutors.
Last spring, Montclair State introduced the program to its students and in its first semester, 26 people volunteered one afternoon every week to help inmates at Northern State prepare to take their General Education Diploma (GED).
“It’s beautiful because they [stick around helping us] and they ain’t getting paid for it,” said Darrell Moody, 43, an inmate from Newark, New Jersey as he sat in the library. “They taking time out of their day to help us and they’re more focused on helping us get our education.”
Koedi Shakir, a student studying education at Montclair State, said she joined the program to build experience to become a future educator.
“I think something that the students don’t realize is that they are helping and teaching me too,” said Shakir. “My student inspires me every single session.”
The program, named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., was founded in 2009 by Charlie Puttkammer. Greene was a former inmate that became one of the most notable media personalities in Washington D.C. Inspired by his life, Puttkammer, founded the Petey Greene Program in his honor to strengthen correctional education services as well as provide students the opportunity to pursue valuable work in the criminal justice system.
Junior justice studies major, Kyarah Bautista was one of 26 students who signed up for the program in its first semester at Montclair State. Although she had concerns such as, being a female and going into a male prison, she overlooked her fears and set out to help make a difference in someone’s life.
“[The inmates] are really intrigued at the fact that one, we’re college students and, two, that we actually go there volunteering to help them,” said Bautista. “So that just proves to me that regardless of where you are people care about education and education really is a key.”
Bautista, who has wanted to be an attorney since she was 10 years old, said she initially went to a forum about The Petey Greene Program in an effort to receive extra credit points from her professor. Not expecting the forum to be much, she found it intriguing and, wanting to know more, attended a second informational session where the guest speaker inspired her to volunteer.
“There was a guest speaker,” recalled Bautista. “He was in prison before, [then had] gotten out of jail and went to Rutgers. So that was a story that I was like, ‘Whoa – it’s like a movie.’”
After tutoring at Northern State Prison for three consecutive semesters, Bautista realized she wanted to work with juveniles to understand why they make bad decisions and if they can be rehabilitated before it’s too late.
During the spring 2017 semester, Montclair State sent a total of 23 students into the prison, each tutoring one afternoon a week.
Super senior and economics major Ebony Coleman also signed on in the spring of 2016. She said the program allows students, herself included, to overcome their own prejudices about prisoners.
“There’s so many stereotypes of inmates that they’re these horrible people [and the Petey Greene Program] allows the outside world, [such as] students, to actually interact with them and realize that they’re not animals, but people that made bad decisions,” Coleman explained.
When asked if being younger than the inmates she tutors creates a barrier, Coleman insisted that not only are the inmates grateful for the students being there, but the inmates will often drop their own “life gems” they can teach the students. She recalled last semester, when she tutored an inmate nicknamed “RA” who suggested she read a book entitled, “Are Prisons Obsolete” by Angela Davis which is about the abolition of prisons.
“I bought the book and I’m currently reading it now,” said Coleman who was amazed to learn how much the prison system changed but yet also managed to stay the same.
Jessica Henry, a faculty resource to the program and professor in the legal studies department at Montclair State, was a public defender for 10 years.
“I represented people who were charged with crime and I know that many of the people who are incarcerated are really great people who made bad decisions,” said Henry. “I thought the [Petey Greene] program would be incredibly valuable to the students [because] it’s a very good program and I thought it’d be fun, exciting and important to have to come to Montclair State.”
The Petey Greene Program is beneficial to students and inmates alike. While the program is fairly new at Montclair State, hopefully, it will continue to grow.