Let’s keep this very simple: Everybody needs money to live on. Some get it by working at legitimate jobs. Some get it by stealing or by dealing drugs. Many of those who steal or deal are illiterate, which makes it hard to find a legitimate job. Lots of them wind up in jail, costing us about $60,000 a year to keep them from stealing or dealing again for a while.
When they get out of jail, they have two choices. Steal and deal some more, if they are still illiterate. Or get a legitimate job, if they learned to read and write while doing time in jail.
We who are not illiterate and can read this column probably figure that teaching prisoners to read and write would be a pretty smart thing to do. They would emerge with increased self-respect and increased prospects for finding a legitimate job. They would have a decreased likelihood of breaking laws for a living, returning to jail, and once again costing us $60,000 a year.
This is what is known to both the literate and the illiterate as a no-brainer.
That is why we now wrack our brains trying to understand why a prison that has hosted a no-cost, volunteer-supported literacy program for twenty-five incident-free years would decide to dismantle the program, declare the volunteers persona non grata, and consign the inmates to a life of continuing illiteracy. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Yet that is precisely what has recently transpired at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. Administrator Michelle Ricci summarily dismantled the highly successful LIFE literacy program that has operated within the prison for a quarter of a century. LIFE (an acronym for Learning Is For Everyone) had become a model program, now emulated by some prisons in other states. It enables outside volunteers to train certain prisoners as literacy tutors, who in turn instruct their fellow inmates in the skills they clearly need to become legitimate job-holders upon their return to society. Hailed as one of President George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light”, the LIFE program has been funded entirely by outside contributions of individuals and institutions, including most recently the offer of a $3,000 grant from Verizon (which—who knows?—might itself have become an employer of newly-literate former prisoners.)
But for reasons that utterly baffle observers, the Verizon grant was summarily rejected and seemingly triggered the dismantling of the LIFE program. The hours prisoners formerly spent learning the skills to rejoin society as good neighbors are now largely spent in less edifying pursuits which are hardly likely to reduce the probability of their once again becoming a menace to law-abiding citizens.
Fortunately, Governor Christie has appointed a very highly regarded new Commissioner of Corrections, Gary Lanigan, and the New Jersey State Senate Judiciary Committee just confirmed his appointment on March 8. He comes to New Jersey from high-ranking posts in New York where he established a reputation as a thoughtful leader and a disciplined manager of incarceration processes, procedures, and facilities. And he comes into a state where the Legislature has recently passed highly enlightened bills reflecting a shrewd regard for transforming prisoners into productive citizens, including a mandated GED program for all who lack a high school diploma. Of course, completing the GED will be a trifle difficult for prisoners who are illiterate, and the cost-free LIFE program was the only literacy training offered at New Jersey State Prison.
All of us who hope for rehabilitation rather than recidivism among the current prison population also hope that Mr. Lanigan will make it his first order of business to propound a clear-cut policy in support of literacy training among all N.J. prisons. And, in keeping with that policy, further hope that he will order reinstatement of the admirable LIFE program at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton ASAP, before the inmates’ tutorial skills, the devoted volunteers, and the organizational momentum that made this program so successful are lost forever.
For a reputedly brainy man like Gary Lanigan, this one should be a no-brainer.