Tutoring for a Second Chance

Westover Hills Presbyterian Church teams with Literacy Action to help inmates at Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility improve their reading and writing skills

A student nervously twists a bit of hair around her fingers as she completes a test to determine her current literacy level. She is 41 and dropped out of school in 8th grade. She has recently enrolled in a jail literacy class that is held at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility (PCRDF). As she finishes her test, she slowly smiles and announces, “I never thought I’d have the chance to go back to school. I think maybe I can do this now, so I’ll be able to help my kids with their homework and get my GED.”

In January 2016, volunteers from Westover Hills Presbyterian Church partnered with Literacy Action of Central Arkansas to provide one-on-one tutoring through the separation glass with the female inmates at the county jail. One year later, in response to the rising interest in tutoring services, Literacy Action, through volunteer tutors from Westover Hills, now offers literacy classes to 15-20 women once a week in a more traditional classroom at PCRDF.

Beginning this year, Literacy Action will also begin offering its first literacy class for male inmates. There are already 4 students signed up and eager for the opportunity to improve their literacy skills. Sara Drew, Executive Director of Literacy Action, comments, “Some of the men in this program are veterans, so this gives them a chance not only to voice their war-time experiences, but also an opportunity to improve their employability when they leave the facility.”

Meeting in a classroom has given the students more opportunities to interact with their volunteer tutors to receive instruction and to complete group projects. The student population is constantly shifting as women transfer to prison, return home, or enter rehabilitation programs. Yet, these challenges do not deter the students from learning. By working on vocabulary, punctuation and writing, the tutors are able to improve the skills that inmates will carry with them as they move forward in life.

One particular student, one of the youngest in the class at 18, plans to return to college. She wants to make her family proud of her again and improve her life by getting a good job. “We know that recidivism is lowered when we can educate the inmates and give them opportunities to change their lives,” said Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay. This young woman has many dreams for her future. This literacy class is just one of many steps that will help this woman achieve her goals.

In addition to writing essays about their aspirations and the changes they want to make in their lives, many students write and share stories about past abuse, struggles with addiction, and feelings of hopelessness. One volunteer tutor describes the emotional atmosphere in the classroom: “There is a world of hurt in that classroom: a fear of life; fear for what happens next; shame for being in jail; shame for having hurt their families and others by their actions; and, they worry about changing their lives if given an opportunity.”

At the end of class, tutors will pass out quotes for their students to keep in their notebooks to motivate them throughout the week. Words like Jean de la Bruyere’s, “Out of difficulties grow miracles,” inspire the women to write their own affirmations and share them aloud with their tutors and peers.

Even though the classes can help inmates fill out job applications and complete GEDs after their release, the tutors also guide students through a variety of creative writing activities. Co-coordinator for the literacy class, Sgt. Gail Long, recalls one lesson that required students to stimulate their senses using photos from magazines to write descriptive paragraphs. “There were some new students that day and when they stood up and shared their paragraphs aloud, and as the other students were clapping, you could tell the impact the class was having on each of them.”

“There are a number of very different personalities, challenges, and diverse needs in the literacy classes,” co-coordinator Sgt. Rick Fields explains. “We’ve all learned through the process and adapted to meet the challenges and keep the program moving forward.”

Reverend Frank LeBlanc, pastor of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church, emphasizes the value of the relationships between the volunteers and their students: “This was a tangible service our Presbyterian Women could bring to the jail. They provide not only lessons in reading, writing and grammar, but also extend the hand of friendship and kindness to an often overlooked population.”

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