In prison, profs find their most eager students

By Juliana Kim
Queens, N.Y.

When Gillian Knapp first walked into the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, she remembers the doors clanging shut behind her and the smell that lingered in the hallways. It was an odor familiar only to those who’ve ever been to a prison. As she walked through security, she didn’t know what to expect.

But Knapp wasn’t heading for a cell. Instead, she was going to a classroom.

Knapp, a retired astrophysics professor, now leads the Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI). After more than 25 years teaching at Princeton University, she decided she needed a change. With four other astrophysicists, she decided to take on the prison education crisis in the United States.

“I certainly hadn’t thought a lot about the prison population before I started doing this,” said Jenny Greene, one of the astrophysicists who joined Knapp. “Often the people that are in prison have less overall education and much worse job prospects.”

PTI taught its first class—Intermediate Algebra with Applications—in 2006. Almost 10 years later, the program has grown exponentially. It has expanded to five prisons throughout New Jersey. And what started as a team of five is now an organization with almost 75 teachers, teaching about 250 students a year. The all-volunteer organization provides classes ranging from educational to vocational, including everything from Arabic to college level algebra. Its two-hour sessions run for 16 weeks.

Greene said she wasn’t surprised that prisoners are taking advantage of what PTI offers given the problems inherent in the prison system. “When they get out, it’s very hard for them to get a job,” she explained. “And so our students are the most motivated students you could possibly work with because they want a job when they get out.”

The ultimate goal of the program is to help prisoners earn their associate’s degree by the time they leave prison. Thanks to a partnership that PTI has fostered with Mercer County Community College, College of New Jersey, and Rutgers University, many of its students are able to continue their education after their release.

Because a lab science is a requirement for many associate’s degrees, the program also set up several lab courses. Knapp is responsible for writing many of the labs. Because of the unique safety precautions necessary for a prison, the lab courses were difficult to devise. Knapp improvised and found prison-safe materials so the prisoners could conduct experiments. Using things as simple as clay, cardboard, and string, Knapp created pendulums for physics labs.

“It was just really fun,” Greene said of the first time she taught a lab. “Doing the hands on experiments and then talking about the solar system, talking about the center of mass and how that affects solar observations was just amazing and really great.”

Though the program began with the determination to transform the lives of prisoners, Greene and Knapp said they too had changed.

“It’s been a real eye-opener,” Knapp said. “I’m a much better teacher and I’m not sure how you couldn’t be by doing this.”

Asked what was the most rewarding aspect of volunteering with PTI, Greene said, “It’s really the motivation of the students.”

Knapp agreed. “The biggest difference between the setting and other classes that I taught is the willingness of the students,” she said.

Last spring, eight students received their associate’s degrees at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. Knapp recalled the intensity of the room — how families and fellow prison mates watched and cheered for those graduating.

Some graduates of the program have enrolled at other colleges after their release. Others pursued bachelor’s degrees and more. Two students even won prestigious Truman Scholarships.

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