Can learning to read keep a jailbird from returning to the slammer?
County detention center administrators aren't sure, but they will give it a try.
On Tuesday, the detention center launched a reading and writing program for functionally illiterate inmates. The new skills, say detention center administrators, should help inmates cope when they leave prison.
"If we help inmates lower their probability of returning to prison, I think the program will be viable," said Lt. Cole Nelson, the detention center's inmate services commander.
The Literacy Works program at Harford Community College is providing volunteer tutorsfor the program.
Learning to read will prepare inmates for other courses already offered through the college at the detention center, Nelson said.
Cheryl Wood, a Harford Community College teacher organizing the prison's literacy program, said, "It will help them improve their reading skills. But it also helps improve their self-esteem."
Only one inmate has signed up for the literacy program. But Nelson said he expects more inmates to take part soon.
"On occasion, we'd find inmates who were functionally illiterate," Nelson said. "Theymight be able to read some, but they are not able to function."
As many as 75 percent of the nation's prison inmates have reading skills at or below the eighth-grade level, said Wood, who also organizes the prison's basic education programs. She said detention center administrators started the literacy program after finding many inmates struggling with the basic education courses.
"We have had some inmates there with very low reading skills," said Wood. "That's the problem we run into. They shy away from classroom situations because of the embarrassment."
The prison literacy sessions will focus on inmates' individual educational and employment goals, Wood said.
The prison has provided adult basic education classes and high school equivalency degree programs for 17 years.
But this is the first prison education program that matches tutors with inmates on a one-on-one basis, Nelson said.
Tutors and inmates will meet for about an hour once a week until the inmate is ready to enroll in the detention center's regular adult education program, Nelson said.
Wood, who teaches writing and reading at the college, coordinates the Literacy Works program for county residents who cannot read.
The Literacy Works program started last March with a $18,000 state grant. Wood said about 30 are enrolled in the college program.