“You have to show people trust and respect. We all make mistakes.”
The first time James Farrin became interested in the prison system was in 1958, when he was a Princeton University senior writing a thesis. The second time was long past his undergraduate days, but the outcome is changing lives and shedding new light on America’s criminal justice system.
In 2008, Farrin cofounded and became executive director of the Petey Greene Program, which recruits college and graduate students to tutor incarcerated individuals in prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers. What kicked off with about 25 Princeton students teaching inmates in one prison grew into a nonprofit that now counts 715 volunteers from 32 colleges. In the last academic year, the program teamed with 37 correctional facilities in eight states.
The program has helped thousands of inmates pass their high school equivalency exams and take college courses — accomplishments crucial for inmates in setting a new direction for themselves. According to a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation, inmates who participate in an educational program are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison. And they’re also more likely to find a job after their release.
“I got into giving back late in my life,” says the 81-year-old Farrin, whose corporate career included a stint in international marketing for Colgate-Palmolive Co. and management roles at other large companies. “I’ve never felt more satisfied.”
Yet Farrin almost passed on the opportunity proposed by Charles Puttkammer, a Princeton classmate and the program’s co-founder. Puttkammer wanted to establish a prison tutor program to honor his late friend, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., a former inmate who became a noted TV and radio personality in Washington, D.C. He offered to fund the idea if Farrin would manage it. Because he enjoyed running his Princeton-based consulting firm, Farrin at first planned to decline the offer. That notion changed a day later after his wife met the chaplain of the Alfred C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in New Jersey and learned it needed volunteers.
“I thought maybe it was a sign. I thought about my thesis,” says Farrin, a father of five who earned a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University. Farrin’s thesis for his undergraduate degree in politics explored the career of Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a pioneer of the American juvenile justice system. Lindsey treated young offenders with an uncommon dignity that aided in their rehabilitation. “You have to show people trust and respect,” says Farrin. “We all make mistakes.”
Erich Kussman believes he wouldn’t have obtained his GED without the guidance of Petey Greene tutors. “Education really opens up your mind to things you didn’t know were there,” says the 37-year-old, who served 12 years for armed robbery. He recalls being shocked that the tutors were volunteers. “Who goes to teach people in prison without getting paid?” asks Kussman, who earned an undergraduate degree in biblical studies after his release in 2013 and is now in his second year at the Princeton Theological Seminary. “I’ll always remember that.”
Such stories are familiar to Farrin, though he often tears up while recounting them. It’s the desire to give more inmates a second chance that keeps him pushing to expand the program. In between garnering donations, Farrin still makes time for prison high school graduation ceremonies. “There is nothing like being in the prison and seeing one of the graduates’ moms start to cry because she is so proud,” Farrin says.