Unlocking prisoners' abilities

Recognition: A Pennsylvania woman who encouraged Maryland prisoners to write is among those honored by the governor for voluntarism.

April 26, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

One prisoner wrote of his love of soccer, while another wistfully chronicled the life he'd enjoyed on a horse farm many years ago.

A third inmate penned a letter to a young daughter: "This year on your birthday behave yourself, take care of your little sisters and study a lot for me. Your daddy loves you very much."

As Marion Chalfant reads the essays and letters of prisoners who not long ago could barely read, she can't stop marveling at the powerful words she helped unleash. "It's a miracle to me that all these positive things can come out of a negative environment," she says.

Chalfant, 74, who received a governor's voluntarism award yesterday, retired in December after eight years as a literacy consultant at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown.

Three times a week, she would drive 50 minutes from her home in Chambersburg, Pa., to the imposing, 70-year-old stone, medium-security prison. She would walk through the metal detector and the series of sliding doors and descend into a basement without air conditioning to supervise reading and writing instruction for convicted murderers, drug dealers and other felons.

Among Chalfant's enduring contributions is her creation several years ago of Expressions, a literary magazine written by her students, most of whom entered prison reading at a first-grade to fifth-grade level.

Several times a year, she would pull together their best handwritten efforts and type them into a computer. Then she would bind them and fashion a cover of goldenrod paper with the subheading, "A Collection of Thoughts by Student Writers and Tutors."

Out of the magazine's pages spill inmates' reflections on pain and aspiration. Many prisoners -- such as the man wishing his daughter a happy birthday -- write poignantly to or about their families on the outside.

Ideally, learning to write provides inmates not only with a new form of expression, but newfound confidence, Chalfant says.

"It can be about hope," she says.

Inmate Darien Scipio, who spoke during an interview from the prison, says Chalfont's magazine gives new readers an incentive to learn. Scipio, 40, who is in prison on a drug-related offense, tutored other prisoners under Chalfant's direction.

"When an individual comes in, they may be afraid to fail," Scipio says. "It gives them great confidence to see their work published. This may be the first thing they've accomplished that's positive in their lives."

Chalfant, a retired elementary school teacher, heard about the literacy program in 1993 and decided to volunteer. The state prison system relies heavily on volunteers for its educational and religious instruction.

She had never been inside a prison before.

"I was told later that I was trembling like a leaf," says Chalfant. "I had thought I was doing extremely well."

In a letter nominating her for yesterday's award, inmate Douglas Arey, serving a life sentence for murder, wrote: "She is unafraid of the biggest, meanest or crudest convicts."

Chalfant was one of 40 Maryland volunteers to receive a pewter plate and certificate in Annapolis from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for their service. The recipients of the Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism awards included educators, environmentalists, health care workers and child advocates.

But Chalfant's biggest fans -- the inmates -- couldn't attend.

"She was enthusiastic every day," Scipio says. "If there was a sticking point, she'd have the grease to loosen it."

In prison, Chalfant didn't ask her 40 students or tutors -- most of whom are inmates -- how they had landed behind bars. But sometimes, their histories would come up in casual conversation.

"People say that everybody in prison claims to be innocent, but they don't," Chalfant says. "If they did talk about it, they would say such things as, `The reason I am here is that it's giving me the opportunity to step back and look at my life and do something about it.'"

But teaching in a prison is not always easy, and sometimes the writing tutors encounter resistance. Their students, after all, are people "who have not had a totally positive and enjoyable educational experience in their past," Chalfant says.

The instructors often have to teach more than literacy. "They wear a lot of hats," says Victor Wachs, coordinator of the reading program. "They act as counselors, psychologists, a friend," a sibling or a parent "in some cases."

Chalfant also volunteered several times a year in a program that counsels inmates on alternatives to violence.

She says she knows that some people regard inmate workshops as superfluous to the mission of punishment. "I think you can be caring without being coddling," she says.

Last year, she decided that with advancing age, it was time to move on.

On her last day, a prisoner honored her by singing a cappella, and another did his best Elvis impersonation.

They also told her how much she was appreciated. "It was very, very emotional," Scipio said.

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