Graduate students participate in a 2019 Prison Teaching Initiative training session.
Julie Clack/Office of Communications
‘It gives you a sense of how much intelligence and talent and imagination is locked up in prisons’

In a normal semester, participants in Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) would lead dozens of courses for incarcerated students in New Jersey state correctional facilities and one federal prison. This spring, with pandemic-related restrictions, offerings were limited to seven classes taught with what officials called “approved distance learning techniques and modalities,” including paper instruction and assignment packets, textbooks, and brief, two-way electronic messages. 

Jill Stockwell *17, PTI’s administrative director, is hopeful for a return to normal by fall. She’ll have plenty of volunteers available: As of mid-April, 130 graduate students, faculty, and staff had applied to teach or tutor in the coming year. Instructors work in teams, so about 100 can participate when there is a full course load.

“This is an opportunity to teach your own class, to create your own syllabus,” Stockwell said, “but also to give back and to extend the resources of an Ivy League institution to this incarcerated group of students, many of whom were pushed out of their school experiences and so are given the opportunity to have a college degree for the first time during a prison sentence.”

PTI has been a leader in New Jersey’s prison-education community, and programs like it seem poised to grow after Congress restored incarcerated students’ access to federal financial aid in the stimulus package passed in December 2020. At Princeton, Provost Deborah Prentice is considering an expansion of community education, including PTI, as part of the University’s efforts to address systemic racism. 

Princeton’s involvement in prison education began in the astrophysics department more than 15 years ago, with postdocs Mark Krumholz ’98 and Jenny Greene and Professor Gillian Knapp volunteering as teachers and handling the administrative tasks as well. Greene, now a professor, serves as PTI’s academic director, and since 2017, the administrative work has been part of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. 

“Every single [student] has recognized that education is the way to change their lives … .” — Jenny Greene, professor of astrophysical sciences

For graduate students eager to teach, PTI offers the chance to lead classes in math, science, social sciences, and the humanities. The program has offered lab courses for about a decade, including a physics lab added last year. 

Most PTI students are pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree through local community colleges and Rutgers University’s Mountainview program. Instructors say PTI teaching is a great experience because of the commitment of the students. While some haven’t been in a classroom in more than a decade, Greene said, “every single one of them has recognized that education is the way to change their lives when they get out.”

Goni Halevi, an astrophysics graduate student who has taught astronomy, physics, and algebra, said the students in prison are collaborative and engaged; they don’t hesitate to ask questions and aren’t concerned about how they are perceived by classmates. “They’re there to learn and to grow as students,” she said. “You really feel that in the way they interact with the instructors.”

English professor Jeff Dolven and graduate student Matt Rickard *19 taught one of PTI’s first “combined” classes, where Princeton students learn alongside incarcerated students, in 2018. In “Poetry and Belief,” six undergrads traveled weekly to East Jersey State Prison for a class that included 12 men enrolled in a Rutgers bachelor of arts program. They explored poems by historical and contemporary poets, and the incarcerated students were devoted to the material and the class discussions, said Dolven, who thought the Princeton students were “elevated by that intensity.”

“It gives you a sense of how much intelligence and talent and imagination is locked up in prisons,” Dolven said.

PTI’s work also has brought formerly incarcerated students to Princeton’s campus for summer internships in the sciences and humanities. This year’s internships will operate remotely because of the pandemic.

Dolven sees prison education as a tangible way for Princetonians to use their academic expertise to work toward social justice. “At a moment when everybody is asking, ‘What can I do?,’” he said, “this is one really important answer.”