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Library's Film Explores Illiteracy in State Prison

Candace Braun

Visitors to the Princeton Public Library's Human Rights Film Festival last weekend got to explore various issues that affect both the local and national population. One of these issues was illiteracy among prisoners in New Jersey.

How Do You Spell Murder? chronicles a year in the life of illiterate prisoners in the New Jersey State Prison, exploring the powerful connection between illiteracy and crime.

The prison houses the most desperate criminals in the state, most of them serving out life sentences, having committed murders and other serious crimes. One study by the National Institute of Justice suggests that illiteracy is the primary cause of crime.

Inside America's prisons, 70 percent of the inmates cannot read or write. The prisons are filled with poorly educated men and women who come from deteriorating urban neighborhoods with failing public school systems. Many inmates in the country read below a fourth grade reading level; the statistics are worse in New Jersey.

To date, approximately 75 percent of the Trenton population is below a ninth grade reading level. New Jersey has the fourth highest level of immigrants in the country, even though it is the fifth smallest state.

The film discusses the New Jersey community's 18-year effort to help teach prisoners how to read.

Some of the men in the documentary tell stories of repeating second or third grade four or five times, and how they were promoted to the next grade level just so that the district could get them out of the school system. Many have undiagnosed learning disorders, and almost all are school drop-outs.

Many of these criminals could barely grasp the legal documents and procedures in their criminal trial, and were unable to understand what determined the court's ruling.

Some of the prisoners in the film are not only able to learn to read themselves, but have taken tutor training courses to become literacy tutors for other inmates.

The film profiles Elaine Phillips of Lawrenceville, who has been going to the state prison for a number of years to train inmates as tutors and to evaluate their students. She is associated with ABC Prison Literacy, which is an outreach program of the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. She is also the tutor trainer for Literacy Volunteers in Mercer County, and has recently completed a training course held in the Princeton Public Library, that graduated 25 new tutors. Ms. Phillips is also a learning disabilities specialist, and spends time each week identifying students with special needs that have limited their ability to read.

For those prisoners who do eventually get out, the rate of recidivism is markedly reduced and the chance that these men can return to a useful life is increased dramatically with their newfound ability to read.

At present, there are more than 150 trained tutors actively volunteering their time with almost 400 students throughout Mercer County, teaching basic literacy as well as English for speakers of other languages.

The need for tutors with the Literacy Volunteers in Mercer County is constant, with a growing waiting list of 100 or more students. A seven-week tutor training course is offered several times a year in different areas around Princeton. The next scheduled program will be held in September.

For more information, email LVAMercer@earthlink.net, or visit http://www.princetonol.com/groups/lvamc.

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