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Books behind bars: program allows inmates and juveniles to learn together - and from each other.

The "Books Behind Bars" program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky., is an innovative program that brings together inmates, high-risk middle school students and volunteer college students to discuss novels. The 15-month-old program allows individuals from different backgrounds to learn from each other as they share in the educational experience.

The program was created by students and faculty from the sociology department at Bellarmine College, a private college in Louisville, Ky., located about 25 miles from the prison complex. It grew out of an experimental project tried in 1989 that was designed to help high-risk teenagers.

In the original project, middle school students from Oldham County Middle School (located four miles from the prison complex) met with medium security inmates and students from Bellarmine. Project staff believed youths would benefit from hearing inmates tell stories of what led them to prison. Unfortunately, the project was hindered by the amount of repetition in the inmates' stories, students' feelings that the inmates were "preaching" and the lack of an avenue for the college students to directly participate.

Nevertheless, project administrators believed that bringing together juveniles and inmates was a good concept. After several meetings between prison complex staff and instructors at the middle school and the college to develop a new program, Books Behind Bars began in the fall of 1991.

Unlike the earlier program, Books Behind Bars' format focuses on traditional education. The students (both male and female) and inmates read one selected book a month on their own time and then discuss it in an informal group session in the prison complex's visiting area. The sessions are moderated by middle school and college staff; college students participate in the discussion. Private donations pay for the purchase of the books.

Program objectives include the following:

* to instill a love for reading in inmates and young people--especially those at high risk of not completing their education;

* to nurture in students and inmates the desire to help others and take an active role in solving social problems;

* to encourage both populations to relate the universal themes about the human condition contained in classic literature to contemporary society and its problems;

* to instill in both groups the general value of education; and

* to overcome the negative effects of isolation by exposing inmates to young people's ideas and problems.

Prison staff oversee the program's administration and are responsible for providing security to the middle school and college students who participate. Before being accepted into the program, inmates are screened and selected by psychological services staff members, who look at inmates' participation in other programs. The warden must approve all inmate participants. Inmates are not permitted to contact the students outside of the program. Those who behave inappropriately with students are removed from the program.

Most inmates in Books Behind Bars are enrolled in an academic program at the institution. However, a few with limited or no literacy skills have participated by listening to the books on tape or having other inmates read them the books.

Middle school students participating in the program are recommended by school faculty and administrators. They must meet the criteria of high-risk students, which include alcohol and drug use, trouble in the home and problems at school.

The program's first year featured several books by S.E. Hinton, an author whose work centers on teenagers living on the fringe of mainstream culture. Her books were chosen because program participants can relate best to characters whose experiences may accurately reflect their own personal repertoires.

This spring, we plan to add two Shakespearean plays--Macbeth and Othello--to the curriculum. In addition to discussing the plays, students and inmates will act out selected scenes.

The program already has received statewide media attention. Last May the Louisville Courier Journal and two local television stations covered the school year's final meeting.

Several educational officials in the Louisville area who saw the television coverage contacted program staff. As a result, the program has now expanded to include three other middle schools, and students are meeting with inmates at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Pewee Valley.

We believe Books Behind Bars is reaching its designated goals. With the recent expansion, program staff are confident that it will become a permanent part of Kentucky's correctional programming.

Stephen T. Smith is warden of the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky. Nancy A. Schrepf is a licensed clinical psychologist at the complex who directs the Books Behind Bars program. Members interested in setting up similar programs may contact them at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, P.O. Box 6, LaGrange, KY 40031; (502) 222-0365.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Correctional Education
Author:Smith, Stephen T.; Schrepf, Nancy A.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Building inmates' skills through training, industry and education.
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