Walworth County Government Today: Literacy program encourages inmates to learn for a better life

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Dave Bretl | November 23, 2015

Walworth County received some good news this past week. On Nov. 12, the Walworth County Jail Literacy program received the Dean Howard Eisenberg Award at a ceremony in Milwaukee. I tagged along to watch the presentation and show my appreciation for the hard work of all of those involved. I'm glad I did, because while I already knew some of the basics of the program, I learned a lot more about this important initiative.

The award, which is named after the late dean of the Marquette Law School, was presented at the annual conference of the state public defenders. The honor is bestowed by the Public Defender Board in recognition of those who tirelessly work for the rights of our poorest citizens.

The literacy program began in 2007 through the efforts of Brigette Kutschma, a public defender who was working in our county at the time. Brigette saw firsthand the need to improve the literacy of jail inmates. She and our sheriff accepted the award.

In her work with inmates, Brigette observed that, “beyond their sometimes hardened exterior and beyond the title of their offense lies an individual who often wants to change their life but does not know how.”

Education, in her mind, would instill esteem in inmates and give them skills to help them be successful when they were released. Brigette pointed out that several national studies have shown that correctional-based educational programs have a significant impact on the recidivism rate. For example, a three-state recidivism study, published in 2001, focused on 3,200 individuals who were released from prison in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio. The study evaluated the three common areas of recidivism — rearrest, reconviction and reincarceration — between those who had participated in educational opportunities while incarcerated and those who had not. The study found that educational participation while incarcerated reduced the likelihood of rearrest by 13 percent, the likelihood of reconviction by 21 percent and the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent.

The Walworth County Literacy Council did its homework before launching the program. While improving basic literacy might seem like a good idea, it wouldn't be worth the effort if inmates didn't buy in. Between June and December of 2007, the council surveyed 567 inmates at our county jail to gauge interest and determine what skills should be taught. As a result of that fact finding, the program was launched.

For the past eight years, volunteer tutors have been working with inmates to teach reading, writing and math skills.

Sheriff Kurt Picknell arrived at the award ceremony in full uniform. I noticed that some of the public defenders in attendance were a little surprised by this.  They were polite about it, but pointed out that uniformed law enforcement officers generally don't attend their conferences. Rather than ignore this reaction, Kurt used it as the basis for his speech. While law enforcement and public defenders have very different roles and often are adversaries in court, he pointed out they are all part of the same criminal justice system.

Kurt, who has seen the program firsthand, observed that it makes inmates “do things that they may not want to do to take them to a place where they know they need to be.” He noted that inmates have a lot of time to reflect on their lives in jail and this program reaches some of them in quiet moments when they realize that they need to make changes in their lives.

Kurt also pointed out that jail literacy is one of a number of programs that the county has been pursuing in recent years in an effort to reduce its jail population. Treatment courts addressing drunken driving and drug abuse are two initiatives that the county has implemented through its criminal justice coordinating committee. These programs provide intensive counseling and therapy designed to break the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that kept inmates returning to the jail.

When some of these programs first started out, I heard the criticism that they were soft on crime. I disagree. Participating in the monitoring and counseling required by our drug and alcohol court can, in many respects, be more challenging than just completing a jail sentence. Those inmates who are not committed to changing their behavior are still dealt with under the traditional court system. In a similar way, the jail literacy program isn't about inmates earning PhDs at the taxpayers' expense. Inmates who participate in the program learn basic skills that, for whatever reason, they were unable to pick up in school. Leaving jail with the ability to read, or even get a GED, provides them with a chance to get a job and avoid returning in the future.

The jail literacy program always is looking for volunteers. It was pointed out to me by several people familiar with the program that one important criteria of a successful tutor is someone who will not judge. People often end up in jail as the result of making bad choices. Tutors need to look beyond the past and prepare inmates for a brighter future. If you think you might be interested in volunteering for this program, you can contact Abby Baker at 262-957-0142. If you would like to learn how you can help the literacy council, check out its website, walworthcoliteracy.com, or contact Denis McNamara, literacy council coordinator, at [email protected].  

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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