Local groups work to educate prisoners

Peter Floess

Staff Writer

A few local organizations are using education to reduce the prisoner population in Illinois and some of them have a presence on the Parkland College campus.

Programs like Books to Prisoners, Reading Reduces Recidivism, and the Education Justice Project are all working to increase awareness and also to make a difference in the lives of prisoners.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, inmates who had taken part in education programs had a 43 percent less chance of recidivism than inmates that had not.

Recidivism is when “a person relapses into criminal behavior” after being “treated” for that behavior.

Stephanie Pierson of Reading Reduces Recidivism, a statewide project aimed at building library resources for Illinois prisoners, says, “Reading and education allows prisoners to better prepare for the outside world once they are released. In my experience working at the county jail library, library day was the highlight of the week for inmates.”

The Education Justice Project (EPJ) is a part of the Department of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Tracy Dace, who teaches developmental English and reading at Parkland, advises EPJ.

“EPJ offers UIUC courses at Danville Correctional Center and many other educational programs such as English as a Second Language classes, reading groups, speakers, and math workshops.” Dace says “a significant outcome” of the successful classes is that several EJP students have enrolled in college after being released from prison.

Dace thinks the best way that Parkland student can help increase education among prisoners is to become more informed and aware of the benefits of educating people who are incarcerated. He wants Parkland students who are interested in criminal justice to contact him at tdace@parkland.edu.

Doris Andrechak of Books To Prisoners said not all prisons have functioning libraries in Illinois, or they are poorly funded so inmates do not have access to reading material. Organizations such as BTP and 3Rs were created to fill the gap at prisons. BTP mails donated books to individual prisoners that the prisoners have requested in letters. 3Rs serves prison library throughout Illinois by providing books to them.                                                                                                                                                       BTP accepts book donations and a donation box is located by the Parkland Library, located in the X wing. Andrechak said popular books requested among prisoners include fiction as well as books on history, writing, art, different trades and how-to books.

Volunteers are needed at BTP to answer letters or package book boxes for prisoners. Information can be found at the BTP website: http://www.books2prisoners.org/.

Lolita Dumas, the volunteer coordinator of BTP, said there hasn’t been a group from Parkland in a while.

3Rs also takes donations from the public though they usually have wish lists from librarians of the types of books requested.

For more information about becoming involved in 3Rs, visit www.3rsproject.org or email Pierson at 3rsProjectCU@gmail.com.

Other programs like Project READ and Parkland Adult Education help adults better their education. These programs also reach into jails and prisons to help inmates better themselves.

Parkland Adult Education offers high school equivalency (HSE) tests involving reading, math, and writing to both male and female prisoners at the satellite jail in Urbana. Unfortunately, HSE classes at the satellite jail are not offered at the moment due to lack of funding from the Illinois Community College Board.

“Classes help learners develop the skills they need to pass high school equivalency exams, and to succeed in training and coursework at the postsecondary level,” said Dean Tawanna Nickens of Adult Education. “All male students at the correctional facility attend the same HSE class regardless of their level.   Tutoring sessions for women are scheduled on an individual basis.” Nickens said the HSE classes at satellite jail “remain among our high performing options due to rigorous course standards, and the intensity and duration of classes offered to students.”

Project Read, a program created by state government, trains volunteers “to work with low literacy adults in Parkland’s district.” The program coordinator at the Champaign County Correctional Center tries to find a prisoner that needs a personal tutor. Usually in the past Project Read has worked with either women or English second-language students at the satellite jail.

Parkland students interested in helping adults build literacy skills can volunteer in the HSE class, or work individually with an inmate. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Tawanna Nickens at (217) 351-2390 or tnickens@parkland.edu.