Project of the Week: Prison Teaching Initiative

Prison Teaching Initiative

The Department of Astrophysics building is one of the less familiar structures on campus to many students. Tucked away down Ivy Lane, Peyton Hall seems removed from the hustle and bustle of campus, much like the objects of their study.

But the faculty of the Department of Astrophysics are very much down-to-earth, and very involved in the community. In 2005, two postdoctoral fellows and one Astrophysics professor, Mark Krumholz ‘98, Jenny Greene, and Professor Jill Knapp, all joined forces to address a pressing social issue - that of inmate education. Together, they established one of Princeton’s signature service projects, the Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI).

PTI began as a partnership with Mercer County Community College, whose faculty had already begun teaching college-level English and math classes at the local Garden State Correctional Facility. The inmates receive college credit towards degrees, or towards acceptance into colleges nation-wide. The program also included transitional support for inmates looking to apply to external programs. As the initiative grew, the Pace Center stepped in in 2008 to offer support and assistance to the burgeoning program.

Andrew Nurkin, Senior Program Coordinator for PTI, describes the initiative in more detail. “PTI is an outstanding way for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty to collaborate on a teaching project outside of the University,” Andrew says. “Instructors gain new mentoring or peer-support relationships, teaching skills, and an experiential encounter with a serious public crisis. Many instructors come to understand themselves and their teaching in the context of the larger forces at work in American society and education.”

And it’s true. Projects such as PTI are already in place in many prisons across the United States, working to address the issue of mass incarceration. It’s not an easy problem to address - the US has the highest per capita and percentage rate of incarceration in the world. Currently, 2.29 mililon individuals in the US are incarcerated. A profound lack of access to education, both during an incarceration period and after, feeds the cycle of mass imprisonment. PTI works to break that cycle by providing inmates with the opportunity to take classes in disciplines as wide-ranging as English, math, biology, philosophy, and sociology.

The Initiative is seeing many positive results. Aside from the memorable experiences of introducing an inmate for the first time to advanced mathematics, or seeing the enjoyment on someone’s face for the first time they encounter Shakespeare, there is ample evidence of the concrete impact PTI has upon the different lives it touches. Andrew recalls an excerpt from an essay, recently turned in to one of the Princeton teaching fellows. A student named Jimmy concluded his essay with this: “I have found that like any school, a prison is an environment for learning. It’s not the prime environment, but knowledge is in abundance for any scholar hungry to learn. Safe to say, PTI is feeding a very real, and very relevant, hunger for knowledge.

Want to find out more about the Prison Teaching Initiative. Visit PTI's webpage here!