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Literacy volunteers share a belief in rehabilitative effect of education.

Serving as a literacy volunteer at a correctional institution asks many things of a person. Volunteers must be trained to teach reading and writing skills. They must believe tutoring an inmate is more important than personal comfort. And they must give themselves over to the requirements of a frequently unfathomable bureaucracy. Volunteers who overcome their apprehension of barbed wire and security doors often are done in by the frustrations of driving 20 miles only to find that their inmate-student has been locked down or transferred. But with ingenuity, open-mindedness and perseverance, literacy volunteers and correctional educators have built successful programs in several states.

An estimated 2,000 volunteers from national organizations such as Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy Action now volunteer inside prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers across the nation. Hundreds more tutor inmates through local organizations such as religious groups and literacy councils.

Successful volunteer programs vary in size, organizational structure and instructional methods, but their volunteers share a strong belief in the rehabilitative effect of education and a desire to serve their community. Here is a look at successful programs in Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania and some of their effective strategies.

In Virginia: Patience And Perseverence

The Richmond Metro Area Prison, Jail and Learning Center Tutors sends literacy volunteers to 10 Virginia prisons. According to founding member Hamilton Crockford, the organization grew out of a loosely organized group of church members who were "preaching education as the answer for the prison problem."

"The only prayer (for released inmates) is to get a job, and to get a job these days you've got to be able to read and to do your numbers," Crockford said. "The average person never thinks that 98 percent of inmates are going to be released one day, ready or not. You have to get them ready."

Crockford and his fellow tutors typify the patience and perseverance it takes to be a successful corrections volunteer. On their own, they contacted the Virginia Department of Correctional Education and received training in literacy tutoring from the department's literacy coordinator.

In 1986, the group began visiting the Virginia State Penitentiary just outside of Richmond. They soon met with the typical problems volunteers face in corrections--lockdowns and confusion over paperwork. This prompted Crockford to nickname the group the "Flying Squadron"--because they were "grounded" so often.

When Virginia State closed in 1990, the tutors began travelling greater distances to programs at other prisons. (Crockford rechristened the group the "Fantastically Farther-flung Flying Squadron.") Although it has only 18 to 20 active members, the group believes it is making an important contribution.

The persistence of these individuals who are motivated solely by their desire to be of service to their community, including the community of the correctional institution, exemplifies the volunteer spirit that is needed to make a literacy program succeed. Says Crockford: "Our volunteers are the stubbornest, most patient I've seen. You have to be a little crazy too. Turnover is high because of the frustrations you meet at the gate."

In Delaware: A Consulting Firm Provides Management Expertise

The Literacy Volunteers of America's affiliate in Wilmington, Del., has taught inmates since 1988. Working with Delaware Commissioner Robert Watson, the group found a unique way to resolve communication problems that often hinder volunteer programs.

Watson convinced a management consulting firm to pilot a volunteer project with LVA and the state corrections department to fill the gaps in the education program created by crowding and lack of funds. Commissioner Watson and consultants from the management firm meet monthly at the Women's Correctional Institution in Claymont. Inmates and staff are bused from other state institutions to the meetings.

Each institution has a committee of volunteers, staff and inmates that develops projects to enhance the delivery of educational services. Projects have included testing the reading levels of all inmates as they enter the institution and arranging to have academic records transferred with inmates when they are moved to other institutions.

Carmen Knox, the program's coordinator, emphasizes that volunteers need training not only in literacy instruction skills but also in security practices and institution rules. Careful screening also is vital because some people who are attracted to the idea of volunteering in a prison fail to understand the legitimate security concerns of corrections administrators. A bad experience can make administrators cautious about inviting volunteers into the facility.

"Administrators may want to be cooperative, but because of situations beyond their control, they cannot always arrange to have the inmates available when the volunteers are scheduled to tutor," Knox says.

In addition to tutoring inmates, the Delaware volunteers train other inmates to work as tutors. This is a growing national trend. Some inmate tutors are paid employees of the correctional institution and others are volunteers. Upon release, several inmate tutors have gone on to volunteer as tutors in the community.

In Pennsylvania: An Emphasis on Community

Developing a greater understanding of what it means to be a community is a driving principle behind the Prison Literacy Project at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pa.

Like the programs in Delaware and Virginia, the Pennsylvania program grew out of a commitment by individuals to effect change in their community. The group's creed states that "individuals inside and outside prison are members of one and the same community."

The Project stresses "are members" and not "will be members" to emphasize its commitment to working with inmates as community members. The managerial structure of the organization reflects this belief: Each correctional institution has internal (inmate) volunteer managers and external (community) volunteer managers who make decisions regarding communications, finances, tutor administration and enrollment. Like the Delaware program, the Pennsylvania program used an outside mediator to help develop a focus for the project.

SCI-Graterford officials estimate that in 1985, the Prison Literacy Project's first full year of operation, 1,400 of 2,400 inmates were functionally illiterate. In 1993, of 4,100 inmates, about 2,400 need literacy tutoring. Since 1984, more than 350 students have been tutored, and 150 tutors--both inside and outside the facility--have been trained.

The success of the program has resulted in several publications, including a newsletter, a handbook and Inside Outside: Writings from the Prison Literacy Project, a collection of poems and writings by inmates and volunteers meant for inmates who are learning to read. The Project has even produced an Emmy-nominated documentary about their work, "The Prison Literacy Project." Two other programs in New Jersey and Texas are modeled on the Pennsylvania program.

Turning Inmates Into Tutors

The Prison Literacy Project has found that there are not enough teachers and tutors to meet the dire need for literacy instruction. Although the Correctional Education Association estimates that 75 percent of all inmates are functionally illiterate, according to a 1990 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, only 20 percent receive educational services while incarcerated.

Inmates can help bridge this gap. In 1980, Maryland was one of the first states to train better-educated inmates to tutor their illiterate peers. Since then, nearly every state has developed an inmate tutoring program.

In some cases the inmates serving as tutors are paid and in others they work as volunteers. Stephen J. Steurer, CEA's executive director and one of the originators of Maryland's program, says, "The peer tutoring program seeks not only to serve low-level students more effectively, but to allow tutors to experience the joy and satisfaction of helping a peer achieve in school-3-an opportunity lacking in the lives of most offenders."

Inmate tutors, Steurer explains, increase the educational services provided to inmates and permit teachers to manage their classes in such a way that students needing individual help receive it. "The peer-tutoring program is very cost-effective, as it uses inmate-tutors who are paid a small daily stipend (and time off their sentences) for their work," Steurer says.

This amounts to a kind of community service behind bars. Since tutoring is a full-time job, tutors work many more hours than traditional community-based volunteers. Because of these factors, inmate tutors usually far outnumber the community literacy volunteers.

Even in New York state, where until recently each institution had a full-time employee coordinating community and inmate volunteers, inmate tutors outnumber community volunteers at most locations. Inmate tutors there recently began receiving pay for their work. Another large system that relies on inmate tutors is Michigan, which has 647 paid inmate tutors and 40 to 50 community volunteers.

Another source of volunteers is the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program. VISTA volunteers serve in low-income communities, where they help non-profit organizations get programs started. They usually volunteer for one year.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections uses five VISTA volunteers in its programs and has 217 active inmate tutors. Ed Stolz, administrative assistant to the state superintendent of schools, says, "People are not too good about volunteering in prisons and when they do, they don't stay long. We had been in operation a year before we used the VISTAs, but we didn't have enough people to oversee the literacy program. The full-time volunteers really jump-started the program and the program should be able to carry over when the VISTAS leave."

For the actual tutoring, Oklahoma depends on the inmate tutors, some of whom are paid and some of whom are volunteers. "You can have a teacher who does so much and a coordinator, but we all know that the ones who run it are the inmates," Stolz says. "We'll never have enough paid staff to do it all."

Breaking Barriers

The successful tutoring programs described here share in common a willingness to drop the barriers we have constructed over the years in exchange for open communication and a true desire to effect change on the part of everyone--including volunteers, inmates and security. For more information on inmate and volunteer tutors or on literacy programming, call CEA's Outreach Training Center at 1-800-783-1232 or write to CEA/Outreach Training Center, 8025 Laurel Lakes Court, Laurel, MD 20707-5075.


Prison Literacy Project. 1993. Prison Literacy Project Handbook Revised. Philadelphia. Prison Literacy Project. Steurer, Stephen J. 1991. Inmates helping inmates: Maryland's peer tutoring reading academies, The Yearbook of Correctional Education. Laurel, Md. Correctional Education Association. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1992. Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C,
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Tracy, Alice
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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