Behind Bars, Education Offers A Great Escape

By Michele Alperin

Early on in his sales and marketing career, Jim Farrin threw himself into extremely challenging business situations, promising, and then implementing, effective solutions in what seemed to others like impossibly short time frames.

At his third international position, as managing director for a Chesebrough-Pond’s facility, he encountered his most difficult assignment — trying to turn around a French subsidiary where the previous five managing directors had been fired in less than two years. But his solution, which was unusual, taught him something about the value and satisfaction of helping others grow.

“I took the enormous risk of firing all the directors — my diagnosis was that they were playing the game of fire the general manager and we continue to stay here and get our raises,” Farrin says.

“We started fresh and were able to turn the company around from major losses to break even in a year,” he says. “It was due to people who got energized once they saw the people who were milking the system were removed — it was like taking a 100-pound weight off of them.”

The lessons he learned from this and other business experiences have been critical in his latest venture as executive director of the Petey Greene Program, which puts student tutors in prisons to enhance their educational offerings. Regarding his relationships with the student activists he manages today, he says, “What really makes me happy these days is to work with others and to see them excel and grow — that is really at my soul.”

The Petey Greene gig came pretty much out of the blue. Farrin was happily busy with business consulting in 2008, when a call from Princeton University classmate Charles Puttkammer, also of the Class of 1958, and a chance encounter on the part of his wife the next day put him at the helm of the Petey Greene program, named after an African-American television and radio talk-show host who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence for armed robbery to become one of the most prominent media personalities in Washington, DC. Greene was also a friend and mentee of Puttkammer.

The day after Puttkammer’s call, Jim’s wife, Marianne Farrin, who had graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary at age 68, happened to meet Emmanuel Bourjolly, chaplain at the Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility in Bordentown, and told him about the call her husband received from Puttkammer. The chaplain, in no uncertain terms, urged her to bring Jim to visit the prison.

Farrin followed through and met then-superintendent Alfred Kandell, who told him, “You’re going to be the one who is going to do it; you are going to bring Princeton tutors here because we need them.” They needed tutors because prison classes were large, and there were no teaching assistants.

This sort of organization was new to Farrin, and when he was thinking about how to get started, he met with Kiki Jamieson, head of the university’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement, founded in 2001 by John Pace Jr. ’39, John Bogle ’51, and Professor Burton Malkiel. Jamieson advised Farrin not to be disappointed if the program didn’t succeed. But she did advertise an initial meeting to draw in students at Frist 302, a lecture hall. “When I went in with Al Kandell, there seemed to be 30 to 35 people there, and neither of us could believe it,” Farrin said. But that year, 2008, he recruited his first 26 volunteers. (The Pace Center is now a partner of the Petey Greene Program.)

Interestingly the Petey Greene Program was not Farrin’s first exposure to the problematic aspects of incarceration. For his senior thesis in the politics department more than 55 years ago he decided to explore the career of Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, whose ideas he found to be both innovative and interesting. “I didn’t want to be the 45th person to do a thesis on an American president or governor,” Farrin says. “I wanted to pick a unique topic that would shake some people up, and even me.”

“He [Lindsey] proposed solutions which were challenging all the norms, even to this day,” says Farrin, offering an example regarding juvenile delinquents. As part of the judge’s job in Colorado of 1915, he sent delinquent teens to reform school, on the train under guard, but they would regularly escape. So he decided to try out a different approach for a week, giving the teenagers a train ticket plus extra money for a taxi when they arrived. Then he told them: “If you don’t get there, you are betraying a trust.” The result in that first week was that instead of losing 10 percent of the teens on the way, they lost only 2 percent.

Summarizing the judge’s approach, Farrin says, “He said incarceration does not work. What works is looking someone right in the eye, saying, I trusted you, you’d better fulfill my trust. If you don’t, it’s not going to be good for you and not going to be good for me.”

For Farrin, the connection between his thesis and his work on the Petey Greene Program was not random. “I am a strong believer in God, that he puts certain signals in front of us,” he says. “This is a program that has been built through faith.”

The program, which began with 26 students from Princeton University, and was initially run entirely by Farrin, now has 11 employees and is in 17 correctional facilities and 17 colleges and universities, in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. Its mission is to help the incarcerated through education. “Our dream is to expand the program nationally; and so far the pieces seem to be falling into place,” Farrin says. “We are all having a tremendous time doing this. Every person who is part of this is completely committed to the mission.”

The beneficial effects of education in prison have been illustrated by many research studies, and Farrin cites some of the statistics. A 2014 Rand megastudy found that when an inmate participated in correctional education the chance of him or her finding a job upon release rises by 13 percent and recidivism drops by 30 percent. Also, for every $1 invested in prison education, the reduced recidivism lowers incarceration costs, resulting in by $4 to $5 savings over three years — “a great return on investment,” he says.

Looking at it in terms of human self-worth, Farrin says, “you could argue that it is even more important that they start to feel good about themselves as a person. I’m learning, and with learning, I can grow.”

“If it becomes a habit, they can do a lot,” Farrin says. “Education gives them a chance to get on the track and train, and hopefully they will get a job and reenter successfully into our society.”

In America today, he says, we spend $86 billion every year on mass incarceration and associated costs on a system that is not working. Over the last 25 years, increases in minimum sentences have been imposed. For example: six to seven years in jail for first-time drug offenders. And once you are in the system, Farrin says, it’s not so easy to emerge successfully.

The Petey Greene Program offers education to correctional facilities at no cost, with the funding coming out of its own expense budget. “Tutors are tremendously needed,” Farrin says, explaining that the general prison class size is 20 to 25, with students ranging from very bright to those who need lots of help. The tutors work closely with teachers, providing additional coaching on specific assignments, up to and through the GED.

In 2008 the group ran its pilot program, which Farrin says was very successful, citing a survey at the end of the semester where volunteers rated the experience at 4.8 on a scale whose top was 5. As to why they liked it so much, Farrin offers three reasons.

“First, because it is a new experience for them; and they didn’t have to go to a foreign country to see something totally foreign, just to Bordentown, 35 miles away.

“Second, they got exposure to tutoring, and many fell in love with it and made careers in education.

“Third they got a feeling of what it is like to help people. They saw people who really appreciated their presence.” People who are incarcerated often get few, if any, visitors, Farrin says, noting that many are shocked, and gratified, to find that the students volunteer their time and are not being paid.

After handling the whole program himself for a year or two, Farrin says he finally “woke up” and sent out “an innocent E-mail” asking whether anybody would like to help him develop the program. Three students from the class of 2014, Shaina Watrous, Grace Li, and Joseph Barrett, came forward. “I saw in the first meeting that they were as committed as I was to this program,” Farrin says, adding, “The rest is history.”

They asked Farrin to let them do the recruiting, and it worked. Participation vaulted from 35 to 70.

The students also collectively got the idea to set up an advocacy club, Students for Prison Education and Reform, or SPEAR, which they ran. They had weekly meetings, bringing in speakers, and supporting “Ban the box [on job application forms that ask about criminal history].”

About six months later, Farrin went to Puttkammer and suggested hiring some field managers to expand the program, and the first three were his student recruiters, Barrett in Boston, Li in New York, Watrous in DC, along with Sandy Knuth in Philadelphia and another Farrin classmate, Stan Hale, in Connecticut. They are also currently talking to the University of Maryland.

The field managers, Farrin says, “go into a city, do a study of the entire city, and then decide what is the best opportunity path for Petey Greene to establish itself there. They have to find a facility willing to take college/university tutors and also find a university.”

Another first for the Petey Greene program happened at Princeton Reunions this year, when they were expecting 40 to 50 volunteers to meet together. Farrin says, “I can’t tell you how many testimonials we’ve had from volunteers — ‘This program changed my life, and now I want to give back,’ and ‘I was thinking of being premed, now I’m sure I’m going to be premed because I can help people that way, too.’”

As for his own participation in the Petey Greene Program, Farrin notes that it has played to many of his strengths and helped him meet an important personal goal.

Farrin has now been able to fulfill a personal slogan, that life should be in three chapters: first, education; then, achievement; and finally, giving back.

But he wasn’t getting to that last chapter. Having achieved a lot in terms of his career, he realized that he always wanted to keep working. “I had a lot of energy, and I get excited getting things done and seeing people grow,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Gee, I’m here in my 70s, if I believe that, I’m going to have to live to 120 to catch the third chapter.’ That’s why this Petey Greene Program was the chapter waiting to come out.”

Giving back has been very satisfying to Farrin. “I feel I get something so wonderful back. One of greatest feelings is being in touch with such young and exciting people,” he says, appreciating that although he is turning 79 on July 13, he gets to spend nearly half his time with teens and 20-somethings.

On a typical day Farrin gets up and meets the 7:20 a.m. van to the prison (as well as the afternoon one at 12:30), talks to the volunteers, and asks them how things are going and whether they have any feedback. “It gives a real jumpstart to my day,” he says.

The toughest part of his job, he says, is the operations side, requiring three charts on his wall at home to try to mesh volunteer schedules with those of the students in the prisons.

Puttkammer was the sole funder of the Petey Greene Program for a number of years, but today the organization is looking to cover approximately 30 percent of its program with outside funding. To do so, the organization has been seeking funds from both foundations and individuals. “We are talking to people about what we do and encouraging them to get involved with us, learn about the program, and hopefully give us funds to help us keep expanding,” Farrin says, noting that he and his public relations and special projects manager Walter Fortson are lined up to speak at many Princeton churches.

Fortson, who served two years in prison for selling crack cocaine, then graduated from Rutgers with a 3.8 grade point average and in 2012 received one of 54 Truman Scholarships, a national award given to the country’s top students pursuing careers in government or public service.

Over the next five years, Petey Greene is hoping to expand to 100 universities, working with prisons throughout the United States.

Farrin was born in Oakland, California, and his father was a Navy rear admiral who served as shipyard commander of three facilities, in Honolulu, Philadelphia, and Norfolk.

While Farrin was writing about the judge for his senior thesis at Princeton University, his first career idea was to go on the professional tennis circuit.

His father, former captain of the U.S. Navy team and nationally ranked in doubles, was a magnificent tennis coach, and as a father-son team, the Farrins had four times ranked second in the nation (Farrin attributes this title entirely to his father).

At Princeton Farrin was captain of the tennis team, had been selected the team’s best player for three years, and twice was Eastern Intercollegiate Champion. He figured he would go to Europe and see how far he got.

But reality struck. Farrin knew that his remarkable win over Torben Ulrich, the world’s 10th-rated player, was because “he [Ulrich] had been out the whole night before and could barely see the tennis ball.” Farrin won 6-1, 6-4 and did well at a couple of small tournaments, including winning one in Princeton. “I was feeling good about myself,” he says, but ultimately realized it wasn’t for him. “It hit me suddenly that I had no life and little money,” he says.

So he called up an assistant tennis coach he knew at Stanford and told him, “I’m thinking of applying to business school. I know I’m really late.” The coach asked him if he was willing to help with the Stanford tennis team, and Farrin assented. The coach told him, “Consider yourself in.” Noting that that could only have happened in 1958, it was nonetheless the right choice for him. “I fell in love with sales and marketing,” he says.

As an only child who had gone to 13 schools in 12 years because his father was in the Navy, Farrin had no interest in a job that would require him to go overseas for three or four years. So, to get in some practice interviews, he figured he would find a job he didn’t want and interview for it. The interview he had for an international gig with Colgate-Palmolive was casual. He told them that his wife (who hated the idea of going overseas) was Danish and that he had spent lots of times overseas as a child, and that was the only job offer he got at Stanford.

“Jim, you are perfect for international,” they told him. So he and his wife were off to New York for two years’ training to go overseas. They ended up doing nine countries in seven years and having five children, three of whom were born overseas.

Why so many countries? “I was very aggressive when I was young,” Farrin says. He would ask, for example, how long an assignment would take. When he was told five years, he would ask, “If I do it in two years, will you move me on?” And in each and every case, he was successful, using his passion for sales and marketing in toothpaste and fragrance companies where, he says, manufacturing and finance — not his forte — were not key.

Farrin left Colgate-Palmolive to become Southeast Asia regional director for Richardson-Vicks, where he led a transformation of the region with a new marketing strategy that greatly expanded distribution. Rather than distribute cough drops only in pharmacies, he sold products in general stores and even had teams selling cough drops house to house in Thailand.

He spent 1972 to 1981 with the European division of Chesebrough-Ponds. He moved to Shulton as senior vice president of operations, and executed a strategic plan that increased profitability from 5 to 12 percent.

Leaving Shulton in 1988, he became president of the international division of the Mennen Company in Morristown, New Jersey, where he worked from 1988 to 1992. He increased sales by 17 percent each year and profits by 19 percent by opening new markets and developing improved marketing strategies.

In the 1990s when the Mennen Company was sold (ironically for Farrin) to Colgate-Palmolive, he decided to go out on his own as an entrepreneur.

He launched two projects, which he said are either “failed successes” or “successful failures,” neither having ended up being what he wanted.

His first launch, in 1993-’94 was of an outdoor winter recreation product called Snow Blade, which he saw as a potential replacement for the American sled. It was totally innovative, kids loved it, and they had gotten it into Walmart, Toys ’R Us, and any mass-market retailer they could think of. But they encountered what turned out to be an insurmountable problem: In 1993 there was no snow. “It was a steep learning curve about what can happen when you’re out there on your own,” Farrin says, noting that he had managed to lose his father’s entire estate on the venture.

“Before I was playing with corporate funds, but these were my dad’s funds,” he says. But he also knew his father would not have been disappointed in him. About three months after the business crashed, he had dinner with his father’s second wife, who asked him, “Jim, what would your father ever say to you if he knew you lost all your money?”

Farrin responded to her, “He would say, ‘Jim, great try, you almost did it.’” His father, he says, did that throughout his life, and he knows he would have encouraged his son despite the big loss.

Farrin’s next position, in 1996-’97, was as a consultant with the American Management Association, which he also did between 2003 and 2005. He worked with its president’s division, where he presented material and facilitated discussions with chief executive officers in areas like leadership and corporate culture.

He also did a stint from 1999 to 2001 as chief operating officer of a Pennington company, WorldWater and Power.

Not even colon cancer could stop Farrin. In 1999 his doctor advised him to slow down, not to “take on things that seem semi-impossible,” and not to get discouraged. “When I crossed the finish line [of the marathon], I had my picture taken and sent it to him,” Farrin says, noting that the doctor told him he liked to be wrong.

In 2002 while still living in New York, Farrin was invited by Republicans in New York City to be part of what he calls a “Quixote-esque mission to try to unseat Jerry Nadler from the eighth congressional district.” Farrin agreed to do so at the same time that he was training for the New York City marathon (he did three of these). “I like taking challenges,” he says.

What brought Farrin to Princeton in 2004, where he continued his consulting business, was an announcement by his wife one morning at 4 a.m., around the time she gets up to read the Bible, but before 5:45, when Farrin says he usually staggers out of bed. She told him, “Jim, I think I’d like to get a divinity degree.”

Farrin immediately responded, “I always thought you should.” She was 65; and they moved to Princeton so she could be a student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Farrin had set up a consulting company, World Enterprises Consulting, that was active from the late 1990s in New York until he joined WorldWater as interim chief executive officer in 2006.

WorldWater approached him as a consultant to talk about some of its problems. He ended up being installed as interim chief executive officer of what Farrin refers to as “a very promising solar energy and water company.” However, he says, the company had significant past operating losses and had 35 employees with sales of around $2 million. Back to his old habits, Farrin told the board at the first meeting, “We’re going to go from $2 million to at least $15 million.”

Farrin recalls their being a little overwhelmed at his pronouncement, but in fact they finished the year with $16.5 million in sales, and a rich investor from the West Coast bought a large number of shares, including the stock that Farrin owned. From what had been penny stock that went way up in value, he says, “I exactly paid off my father’s debt. ‘What goes around comes around if you just keep swinging’ is one of my favorite expressions.”

Looking to the things he has done in his life that prepared him to build the Petey Greene Program, he says, “I’ve always gone for things and enjoyed taking a challenge and trying to get something done even though it seemed extraordinarily difficult at the time. That fuels me to try to make it work.”

Farrin adds that he has always had a feeling for the underdog, both in sports and in life. “This picks that up,” he says. “The poor are trapped in the criminal justice system. Poor people tend to get singled out.”

But most important to his success, he suggests, is his knack for developing employees. “In my business career, I believed in trying to set very clear objectives and giving people a lot of latitude in terms of how they choose to accomplish them and giving them a lot of encouragement on the way,” he says. “I have a heavy degree of trust in people; and I am as far from a micromanager as you could have.” And this, he says, works well with the young people of today, who do not want to have someone looking over their shoulder.

Farrin’s advice to people interested in the issues surrounding incarceration is, first, to read books like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and other reading about the prison system.

Among presidential candidates, he would like to see these policy efforts: pressure on the judiciary to reduce mandatory sentencing, with a particular focus on drug sentences, which Farrin thinks “are way too severe for first-time offenses,” and also reducing sentences for nonviolent crime in general, which presents a “huge opportunity to significantly reduce the prison population.”

He is not overly concerned with private prisons, which he says account for only 3 percent of the total, but he doesn’t like them either. “They get a lot of press,” he says, “but obviously when people say, ‘Let’s try to figure out how to make money on incarcerating people’ — it just bothers me on general principles.”

Farrin, who is a moderate Republican, says that “right now the only true bipartisan issue in Washington, DC, is reforming mass incarceration.” He notes that Rand Paul and Cory Booker are co-sponsors of legislation that would reduce and in some cases eradicate harsh sentences for drug convictions, which now can run from seven to nine years. “Lots of statistics show that sending drug offenders to jail is not working,” he says. The easing of penalties for drug-related crimes, he explains, is good for Republicans because it can reduce government spending and for the Democrats who are “more for down and outers, those people less fortunate; voter rights, reducing sentences, and eliminating the death penalty” [which is now supported by the majority of Americans, he adds].

But programs like Petey Greene play an important role. “Education is the most important thing we can do for people who have made a bad decision and find themselves incarcerated,” Farrin says. “The basic hope of somebody is education. It enhances the self-esteem of people and they get the feeling they really can come out here and make a difference.”

The Petey Greene Program, 9 Mercer Street, Princeton 08542. Jim Farrin, executive director.

Reprinted from the June 10, 2015, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper