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Walworth County Jail literacy program has potential to prevent inmates' return to jail

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Kayla Bunge
May 16, 2008
— John was in jail for another drunken-driving conviction.

He couldn’t read or write above a second-grade level, and he couldn’t get a good-paying job.


John knew he had to do something to turn around his troubled life.


He was released from jail in late August and was introduced in September to Marian Hess, a retired teacher who had just become a volunteer tutor for the Walworth County Literacy Council.


John told Marian he wanted to change his life.


“And he knows he can’t do it without (the ability to read and write),” Marian said. “He realizes people make fun of him because (he can’t read and write).”


John and Marian get together for a couple hours twice a week at the Elkhorn library to read books and practice spelling and writing.


With no family and no job, the one-on-one sessions all are he has to look forward to, Marian said.


“Otherwise, there’s nothing,” she said.


In eight months, John has built up his self-esteem, overcome his learning disability and improved his reading and writing.


John isn’t alone. Dozens of jail inmates want to change their lives but don’t know how, Marian said.


This summer, the Walworth County Literacy Council is launching a program designed to give inmates skills to succeed after their release from jail.


“So many of them don’t have the tools to propel themselves to the next level,” said Brigette Kutschma, coordinator for the literacy council and a former public defender. “Education is the tool.”


The program includes two courses:


-- Adult basic education for adults who are proficient in English but want to improve their reading, writing and math skills, possibly leading to a high school diploma.


-- English as a second language for adults whose native language is not English who want to become proficient in English.


'Revolving door'

It’s crucial that inmates learn to read a map, write a letter or balance a checkbook if they want to succeed after jail, Kutschma said.


Without those life skills, former inmates often have trouble getting a job and often end up back in jail for committing new crimes, she said.


“(Education) enables them to get out of the criminal lifestyle, to escape it,” Kutschma said.


A study published in 2001 by the Correctional Education Association found that inmates who participate in education programs while in jail have lower rates of re-arrest, re-conviction and re-incarceration after three years.


“Education provides a real payoff to the public in terms of crime reduction and improved employment of ex-offenders,” according to the study.


Walworth County Jail Administrator Mike Schmitz said it’s up to the jail to figure out how to prevent inmates from finding themselves back behind bars.


“Stockpiling and warehousing individuals is not going to succeed, in this county especially,” he said.


Walworth County is rapidly growing, he said, and so is the number of inmates. The jail was built in 1995 and has a capacity of 512.


“How long that’ll last depends on the population increase and what kind of program we can provide to keep people out of jail,” Schmitz said.


He said the literacy council’s jail program will give inmates “a foot in the door to seek even more help when they get out.”


Kutschma said giving inmates basic literacy skills helps their self-esteem and to “empower them to stop the revolving door of jail.”


Desire to change

Before it started developing a jail literacy program, the literacy council wanted to ensure there would be an interest among inmates.


Two council board members developed a survey in English and Spanish completed by 567 inmates between June and December.


The survey asked inmates the highest grade in school completed and their reading ability. It also asked if they would take advantage of free tutoring to improve their reading and writing skills if it was offered at the jail.


“The results really confirmed there was a significant number of people who were doing time there that were interested,” said John Bigler, vice president of the literacy council board.


Schmitz said the jail has contracted with Gateway Technical College since 1989 to provide inmates GED/HSED preparation and testing.


He said a number of inmates participate in the program, but others don’t have the basic literacy skills to study for their GED/HSED.


The survey indicates almost two-thirds of inmates don’t know free literacy programs are available through local libraries. Kutschma said inmates can be referred to outside resources to continue improving their skills.


“We don’t anticipate someone going from illiteracy to literacy in a matter of months,” she said, “although we hope to definitely get a good start and get the motivation and confidence instilled in them to follow through with their education … once they are in civilian clothes again.”



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