Literacy Volunteers Share a Belief in Rehabilitative Effect of Education

By Tracy, Alice | Corrections Today, August 1993 | Go to article overview

Literacy Volunteers Share a Belief in Rehabilitative Effect of Education


Tracy, Alice, Corrections Today


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. …

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Literacy Volunteers Share a Belief in Rehabilitative Effect of Education
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