By Angela Roberts
When the UMD chapter of the Petey Greene Program officially opened its doors on campus this semester, it felt long overdue to senior criminal justice and psychology major Jordan Costa.
“The University of Maryland has the top criminology program in the country,” she said. “It’s surprising that a hands-on program took so long to come to our campus. I knew I was looking for a program like this, so being a part of its conception here is super important to me, and I know it will also impact so many future criminology students.”
Over the summer, Costa, along with senior criminal justice and sociology major Sagen Kidane and senior criminal justice major Vanessa Reyes, worked with the already nationally-established Petey Greene Program to expand its reach to the area surrounding UMD.
The organization, which pairs university student tutors with incarcerated men and women studying to earn their GEDs, is now in collaboration with more than 30 universities and facilities across the country.
“The goal is to support academic achievement of incarcerated students, but also to influence the tutors,” said Yosmin Badie, Petey Greene’s UMD division manager. “Hopefully this experience will be eye-opening and influence them in whatever they choose to do with their lives.”
Before entering facilities as tutors, students must complete an initial training session that explains the program’s mission within a broader context of the current state of mass incarceration. Students are also advised what behavior is appropriate during tutoring sessions.
“I think something that really stuck out to me was the language we have to use,” said Costa. “Don’t refer to them as inmates – they’re people who are incarcerated or they’re students.”
The training also specifically focuses on preparing students to enter a very different learning environment than what they are used to and instructs them to consider how best to connect with the men and women they will be tutoring.
“We are university students,” said Reyes. “You don’t want them thinking that you don’t care about what you’re doing or if they learn anything.” She said even though college struggles may be trying, attending college is an opportunity many don’t get.
The Petey Greene Program prides itself on producing tutors who are conscious of their privilege and who treat their incarcerated students with respect.
“At the end of each semester, we give out surveys to our students to complete,” Badie said. “The most recurring feedback is that our tutors them like equals and don’t see them any differently.”
Even though it began only a few weeks ago, the University of Maryland’s Petey Greene Program has already substantially impacted the perspectives of the student tutors involved.
“The student I’ve been working with has been involved with the program for quite some time,” said Kidane. “It’s a really good experience because I can see how focused and determined he is, and that’s not something you think about when you think about people who are incarcerated. It’s really rewarding because not only do you get to help, you get to help yourself build different teaching methods and learn to work with people in a different environment.”
The Petey Greene Program drew a crowd at the First Look Fair: 72 students signaled an interest in becoming involved with the organization.This explosive growth follows a broader trend that the program as a whole has been experiencing.
“This year alone, we’ve over doubled the number of tutors we have,” said Badie. “As the program grows and grows, I hope it raises awareness about mass incarceration and bridges the gap between the idea people have about “criminals” and people who are incarcerated.”
Besides promoting the academic success of its incarcerated students, the Petey Greene Program also aims to humanize the people who are currently imprisoned – a population that is widely misunderstood.
“When you go into there, there might be some people who are in there who are just like you,” said Reyes. “Obviously, it can be daunting because it’s jail, it can be a scary place, but there shouldn’t be any fear. They’re regular people, they’re humans, they’re not scary predators.”
Costa’s experience tutoring at the Jennifer Road Detention Center supports Reyes’ assertion.
“Obviously my students made some bad decisions, but I talked to them and they were like, ‘oh, you’re from the University of Maryland, you have that cookie place by you,’” said Costa. “So we talked about Insomnia Cookies.”
Petey Greene’s impact on the lives of its students is not strictly academic.
“A lot of these students are adults, so sometimes it’s harder to see academic progress,” said Badie. “Something our tutors often say is that they see their students grow socially and become able to be comfortable with people on the outside. A lot of our students don’t get many – if any – visitors, so it’s just a big thing for them to have human contact with the outside world.”
Although the program’s UMD chapter is still young, its members already predict that it will have an impact that reverberates past the surrounding community.
“Just giving these students a form of education helps them once they get out,” said Reyes. “When they get out, at least they can say they got their GED. Outside of prison, they might not have the resources or opportunity to do that, so finding work might be hard for them. The recidivism rate could go down just because we gave them an education, and now they can support themselves rather than go through different methods to earn money.”
Photo courtesy of Yosmin Badie