Going Behind Bars

How Volunteers are Changing Prisoners' Lives

BehindBars 0517

When it comes to our criminal justice system we can agree on one thing—we all want prisoners to come out better than when they went in. When it comes to rehabilitation for re-entry, there’s disagreement about providing education to our incarcerated populations. Some say it’s a misuse of dwindling government funds. However, we have to decide what kind of neighbors we want—ones with less than a high school education, and on top of that, unaddressed behavior and addiction problems? Or, ones who have taken steps to overcome obstacles, cultivated their character, processed their situations, found their voices and improved their communication skills, all of which makes them more eligible to become an upstanding, taxpaying contributors to society, as well as to their families?

I am not a scholar, politician, or prison expert. I am a volunteer at the Ridgeland Correctional Institute (RCI), a state prison that houses approximately 1100 male inmates. I’m there every Wednesday because preparing prisoners for re-entry into society requires rehabilitative educational programming. To that end, I teach an adult coloring class for an hour, then I facilitate a book club for an hour. We meet in classrooms located in “Charleston” dorm, the housing unit reserved for inmates who have proven themselves to be, among other things, non-violent. It all started when I volunteered to be a mentor for the newly chartered Ridgeland Toastmasters Club, which meets in the prison chapel every Wednesday.

Inmates who participate in prison leadership and communication clubs, such as Toastmasters, are less likely to return to prison; that’s a fact.

Could educational programs while in prison be the antidote to our current recidivism epidemic? According to Louisiana District Judge Robert Downing, out of 60 inmate Toastmasters who had been released from prison from 1986-1991, not one had been re-arrested. Statistically, 70 percent should have been re-arrested within two years of release. According to a fiscal report recently issued by the state of Washington Department of Corrections, a four-year degree at the University of Washington costs the same as one year of incarceration. That begs the question, wouldn’t we be better off educating, rather than warehousing prisoners?

Elizabeth Millen, Toastmaster’s Area 21 District Director and charter mentor of the Allandale Prison Toastmasters club said, “I have seen these men grow immensely. Toastmaster’s has given them a voice, a reason to connect, a reason to share their stories through speeches. It has allowed them to process their lives, their childhoods, their crimes. It can get emotional and raw, but it has been an amazing transformation. I think some of them, for the first time ever, realize they are really smart. And for others, it is possibly the first time they actually feel heard. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Lots of guys in prison are dealing with anger issues and impulse control. The act of preparing a speech helps inmates to find and uncover their voice. From my perspective, it appears as if they’re also in the process of cultivating their moral compasses, turning wounds into wisdom. I’ve heard some amazingly, well-crafted inspirational speeches. As best-selling author Cheryl Richardson says, “People start to heal the moment they feel heard.” I believe I’m witnessing that at Ridgeland Correctional Institute.

To the South Carolina Department of Corrections, volunteers are cherished resources. They supplement staff, provide programs and services that might not otherwise be available. Volunteers bridge the gap between the community and the correctional setting. I offer inmates a new way to deal with stress through coloring. Although Barnes & Noble has seen the adult coloring book trend dwindle, adult coloring at RCI is filled to capacity with a waiting list. “Ain’t many guys willing to get themselves ready for a 9 a.m. class, ‘cept yours, Ms. Jodie.” The 8-week class starts with a discussion about the point of being mindful because research has shown that the payoff isn’t just serenity, but better physical health and psychological wellbeing.

The RCI book club features books that are inspirational, gripping stories of faith and fortitude. Selections must meet my criteria—we only read and discuss powerful examples of the healing, restorative power of forgiveness and the transformational life-changing power of unconditional love. One inmate said about our first selection, Total Pardon, “I wished I’d read this book sooner. I probably wouldn’t be here if I had.” Others nodded in agreement.

It would be better if inmates were learning 21st century computer skills, but they don’t have access to technology or college courses. Several Ridgeland Toastmasters want to learn how to write and publish their stories. Others want to learn how to become a paid public speaker, and according to what I’ve heard, that dream might be possible. Others could take their artwork to another level and open an Etsy or Zazzle store, online marketplaces for individual sellers and creators of handmade items. Sell art, not drugs!

A human being’s value isn’t diminished by being incarcerated. That’s why I go to Ridgeland on Wednesdays. If you would like to support Toastmasters behind bars, or help keep the Adult Coloring class and prison book club well supplied, there is a GoFundMe campaign: gofundme.com/cultivating-people-potential. Your support will help transform lives by cultivating the “people potential” behind bars through education.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.