A wealth of empirical evidence points to an extreme disparity in educational attainment between the general population and incarcerated individuals.
While 18 percent of the general population lacks a high school diploma, over 40 percent of incarcerated individuals do not have one (Why Prison Education? ). This is not an irreverent difference, as attaining higher education is correlated with decreases in recidivism. In fact, those who participate in educational programming while incarcerated, are more than 43 percent less likely to reoffend (The Case for Correctional Education in US Prisons). Considering that the US has a 67.5 percent reincarceration rate, which feeds into an already over-bloated prison population that costs the tax base $52 billion annually (Why Prison Education?), it is crucial that the US bolsters policy and initiatives that address incarceration and recidivism (re-offending). If education is effective in alleviating the incarceration rate, strong educational opportunities within prison ought to be a crucial element of the rehabilitation process. If we consider the further benefits of increased job prospects, increased social productivity, and reductions in public assistance reliance, it becomes not only advantageous to the individual, but to the society at large to support initiatives that improve the educational opportunities of those who are incarcerated.
Several students from the University of Pennsylvania are committed to reducing this education disparity. They collaborate with the he Petey Greene program, a nonprofit that, “supplements education in correctional institutions by preparing volunteers, primarily college students, to provide free, quality tutoring and related programming to support the academic achievement of incarcerated people”, according to its Mission Statement. The Petey Greene Foundation is located in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C/Maryland, and works with the local universities in these areas; since 2017, University of Pennsylvania has run a chapter of this Program (The Petey Greene Program in Pennsylvania ).
With Petey Greene, volunteers can tutor out of five incarceration facilities in the Philadelphia area, including Glen Mills School, a residential educational facility for court-referred juveniles (http://www.glenmillsschool.org/about/history/). As part of the program, volunteers typically visit a facility once a week for a two hour session with an incarcerated individual or in small groups to help students with literacy, and high school diplomas. For Olivia Ojugbeli, C’22, she works one-on-one with high-level students at Glen Mills, to help them with algebra, biology, and chemistry. While the responsibility of the tutor is to supplement the education, Olivia found that since the coursework was all online, students oftentimes ended up not caring about the coursework, and that they often times, “…tend to guess and check if they don’t know something, and then keep moving on.” Rather than focusing on learning and understanding the material, some students would, “..just try to get a high enough grade so they can pass their topics”, without, “really being taught to them in a way that they can understand it”. Interacting with the Petey Greene volunteers may be the only instances where students have in person, one-on-one interactions with individuals that understand class materials. Olivia noted that students were highly receptive to tutors, and by the end of her two-hour sessions, she could often get a student to become more engaged with the material.
She spoke of one student, who she described as the “sweetest person” and as “extremely smart, and really good at math”, but who hated chemistry. By working with him, and showing him how chemistry was “basically just math, but with words thrown in”, she was able to slowly change his view towards chemistry, and start to get the material right on the online quizzes. With all the student’s she’s tutored, Olivia has found that within the two hour session, at least once, she able to get them to “…crack a smile when they get something right”. Even though the session in not enough time to totally change a student’s understanding of a subject, Olivia found it incredibly rewarding, that for the duration of the session, she can get students to, “…realize just how smart they are” and that, “…they can feel like they can achieve more, than they thought they could”. In this way, Olivia felt that the Petey Greene Program was not solely an education tool, but a means for her and other volunteers, “to in the most minuscule way, [sic] be supporters for them [Glen Mills Students],”.
Not only did Olivia feel as if she was able to help out students at Glen Mills, but that likewise she was able to learn from them. Tutoring with Petey Greene gave Olivia insight that she hopes to extend to the student body. She explained that in regards to academics, Penn students tend to be highly competitive and to enter the mindset that, “If I help you, then I am going to put myself at a disadvantage, because we are competing for the same spot”. But that when you help out another student, if you help them understand a topic, “It really is not going to affect you, but it will make their day”. As the stresses of midterm session come around, along with the flurry of academic worry, perhaps one should remember these words, and not be afraid to reach out and help others; whether it a fellow classmate, or an individual a couple of miles away in an incarceration facility. Speaking generally, Olivia noted that if there was anything to take away from this experience, it is: “…No matter who it is, we are all human. Everyone is just like you, in that they want to feel good. The biggest thing is don’t discredit someone just because they are in a different situation.” On and extending from Penn’s campus, students have the power to be positive and encouraging influences for a diversity of individuals. Starting small, one can help be a peer tutor or a friendly face on campus, and growing from there, students can involve themselves in student and community organizations that seek to combat injustice and unfairness that afflict misunderstood communities.