Prison and jail isn’t all about punishment in Pekin. There are the book clubs.
There also are classes on how to be a better parent and group discussions on topics of history, subjects that most inmates likely didn’t dwell deeply on during their high school years.
About 200 are now getting their chance to learn more about history and improve their literacy skills along the way, through programs that volunteers with the Pekin YWCA offer at FCI Pekin, known informally as the Pekin federal prison, and at Tazewell County’s jail.
None of them is being forced into the programs, said Pam Ritter, director of the YWCA’s Adult Literacy Program, on Wednesday. They want to participate, even if there’s homework involved.
With 25 “highly dedicated, highly talented” volunteers, the program is thriving, Ritter said as she prepares to retire Friday after 12 years as its director.
While her replacement hasn’t yet been selected, “The program will definitely continue” with strong support from the YWCA’s Board of Directors and primary funding from the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, Ritter said. “They think it’s outstanding,” she said.
Outside of the prison and the Tazewell County Justice Center, volunteers will tutor about 60 more students in one-on-one sessions before the agency’s current fiscal year ends June 30.
Some are recent immigrants seeking to improve their English skills, Ritter said. Others want to obtain their GEDs as they seek jobs. Most simply “want to improve themselves. They’re older, they’ve raised their kids and grandchildren, and now it’s their turn.” That group’s average age is about 40, she said.
The prison and jail, however, supply the program with about two-thirds of its students.
On the surface, improved reading, writing and communication skills are the tutors’ focus but their overall goal runs deeper. They want to help the inmates improve their lives.
“We try to build better life skills,” Ritter said. Through the program, “They’re better listeners, better at hearing opposing viewpoints, better at knowing how to talk to their children, better as parents and global citizens,” Ritter said.
She calls the program’s approach “contextualized literacy.” Students “learn reading and writing in the context of another class. Often (it’s on) parenting.
“There are book clubs. One volunteer is doing a Jane Austen book club,” in which inmates read and discuss that author’s works, she said. “Another does a history-focused club,” which recently delved into “Founding Mothers” by author/columnist Cokie Roberts.
Those clubs’ members are women inmates at the prison’s minimum-security camp, which the prison last fall converted back to a women’s unit after several years as a men’s facility. That change added more students to the YWCA program, Ritter said.
So, too, will the program’s return to the Justice Center after several years of absence. Ritter said a new volunteer will tutor inmates there beginning this spring.
Because jail inmates’ average time in custody is three weeks, “The focus is to make them better readers” by having them read articles on issues and subjects, discuss them in group sessions and write informal essays on the material, Ritter said.
“It’s all voluntary,” and, considering the inmates’ otherwise limited options, a popular pastime, she said.
“The tutor’s point is that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can always pursue your education,” she said.