Last October, Netflix released an original documentary directed by Ava DuVernay called 13th. As originally put forward by the NY Times, this full-length feature film is “powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” and “will get your blood boiling.” The film takes a close look at the 13th amendment, which was originally passed in 1865 and “ended” slavery in the United States of America, with one major caveat. Here is the text taken verbatim from section one of the 13th amendment to our constitution:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Ava DuVernay’s documentary then goes on to show how much those fourteen words, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” have been systematically abused in this country for decades. I honestly cannot recommend watching the movie enough. That being said, watching the film seriously challenged my previous notions and ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. For me, it was the second time in my life a documentary shook me to my core, and I knew that I needed to do something – anything, to stop these systems of oppression from moving forward. (The other movie being the highly controversial Waiting for Superman, which pushed me to apply to Teach For America). In Michelle Alexander’s terms, I needed to stop standing still on the moving walkway once and for all.
While having a conversation about the movie with my student teacher at the time, he told me about an incredible nonprofit called the Petey Greene Program. The mission of the organization is to supplement 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. The Petey Greene Program “is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington, D.C. history. While incarcerated for armed robbery, Greene became the prison’s disc jockey and subsequently a role model for many other individuals incarcerated in the facility. Greene’s close friend and mentor, Charlie Puttkammer, was inspired by Greene’s life, and founded the Petey Greene Program in his honor, to strengthen correctional education services and offer college students the opportunity to pursue meaningful and valuable work in the criminal justice system.”
For the past year, I have been privileged to teach adjudicated adults at Northern State Prison through the Petey Greene Program. After two months of paperwork, background checks, and an intense DOC volunteer training, I received my approval, and have subsequently volunteered at Northern State Prison every Thursday afternoon for the past year. Northern State Prison is a mixed security prison, meaning that the facility detains people with different levels of custody, including general population, special needs, administrative close supervision unit (adults who have incurred serious disciplinary charges) and therapeutic community (addictive behaviors). I normally arrive at the correctional facility at around 3:00, as the prison is less than ten minutes from the high school that I currently teach at. After about 20 minutes of processing, including signing in, verifying clearance status, going through airport-style security, and getting frisked down, we are escorted by a corrections officer to the secured area through the prison yard and then to the library.
Once we arrive, our students are typically waiting for us at large tables in the library (see picture below). The students range in age from early 20’s to late 50’s, and are all working relentlessly to pass the T.A.S.C. (test assessing school completion), formerly known as the G.E.D. Almost universally, the students are hungry for knowledge, and are always appreciative of the time we spend with them. I found out recently that Northern State also has a pilot program with Rutgers for those that are looking to attain a college education after they get their high school equivalency.
It is one thing to read about mass incarceration in The New Jim Crow or watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, but it another altogether to experience what a prison is like first hand. As officials at Petey Greene often say, for many of the incarcerated adults we are working with, we are not giving them a second or third chance at an education, but rather a genuine first chance. Study after study shows the effectiveness of prison education programs. This NY Times article point out that “every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on re-imprisonment costs down the line.” An NPR report put forward research that shows that “when inmates get a college education, they are half as likely to end up back in prison.” I think we as a country need to do some serious soul-searching about mass incarceration; we must look to other countries that use their system as a legitimate corrections system, as opposed to a mundane punishment system. After all, isn’t the point of prison to rehabilitate people, not make their lives worse? Can we honestly say that the corrections system we currently have in America is achieving that vision? (Recommended video: Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes reports on the German prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment and allows convicts an astonishing amount of liberty.)
This entire experience has truly been transformative in ways previously thought unimaginable. For me, volunteering has brought up dozens more questions than answers, such as why we deprive thousands of people of their liberties, often for nonviolent crimes, and why some states permanently take away voting rights from former inmates even after they have paid their “debts” back to society. From a financial perspective, it costs more than $40,000 to incarcerate one inmate per year in New Jersey alone. To put that in perspective, we spend less than half of that on each of our public-school students annually. As a teacher, I am of the belief that an excellent education is the only true inoculation for mass incarceration, yet we still cannot get policy makers to vote for common-sense legislation, such as universal pre-K. As Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times points out, the “growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is early education programs.” In another study, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among students who had gone through an early childhood education program. In a way, universal pre-K is one of the best interventions we have to fight the school-to-prison pipeline.
To quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have seen weekly how we systematically remove the humanity and dignity from incarcerated people, and it begs the question as to who we are as a society. I often hear people proclaiming how the U.S. is the “home of the free,” yet we have the highest imprisonment rate per person in the world, including oppressive places like North Korea. As it has been put forward, ending the era of mass incarceration while simultaneously increasing the funding and attention paid to our public schools AND correctional education programs is the only way that will prove that the United States still stands for liberty, opportunity, and an inextinguishable chance at individual achievement.
Every Thursday evening at 5:00pm, a corrections officer comes into the library, gives us the signal to wrap things up, and escorts us out of the prison. As I walk through the prison yard each week, I cannot help to wonder about what all of the incarcerated people are thinking about, many of whom have never held a smartphone or even used the internet. As I wait for the control tower to open the stereotypical series of electrically-locked steel doors, I question how far we have come as a society, and reflect about how much progress we still need to make. For at the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m. every Thursday, I ultimately get my liberty back. Shouldn’t everyone?
Interested in learning more about or applying to the Petey Greene Program? Click here