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Coconino County jail getting a read on inmates

FLAGSTAFF — Dressed in blue overalls that have “CCSO INMATE” on the back, the inmate squared off across a table from Alfredo Cruz.

The inmate, apparently unsure of what happens next, rubbed his mohawk haircut.

Cruz, smiling, began asking questions.

The questions started forming a framework for approaching the inmate’s difficulty with reading and what he would like to do with improved reading skills.

His answer: He’d like to be able to read better to help him get a job, maybe continue his education.

Welcome to the day in the life of a literacy volunteer at the county jail.

“It’s been eye-opening,” Cruz said. “I’ve learned so much.”

Cruz, 22, is a student at Northern Arizona University studying sociology. He volunteers as an intern with Literacy Volunteers of Coconino County, mainly with the Partnership to Literacy Rehabilitation Program.

The program offers literacy assistance to incarcerated and recently released adults and juveniles with low reading levels. It had its first official session Friday in the Coconino County Detention Facility in Flagstaff.

Cruz had his first meeting for one-on-one tutoring with the inmate (who is not being identified at the request of jail officials).

They sat in the “program room” off one of the jail’s cell pods. It has no windows, and the floor is polished cement. A mural of blue sky and clouds, lattices of purple flowers and a fountain is painted on one of the walls.

Along the walls are sayings:

“It’s what we value, not what we have that makes us rich.”

“No dream comes true until you wake up and go to work.”

Cruz had his inmate read a story from a piece of paper. The inmate began reading, and Cruz followed along to get a sense of the inmate’s ability to read “high-frequency” words.

Carynn Davis, executive director of LVCC, said high-frequency words are words most people have seen thousands of times during their reading lifetimes — words like “the, ran, some, sing, sleep.” The words increase in difficulty through ranges to help the volunteers determine where to start with instruction.

Included in the hour-long session are sounding out parts of words that form a multitude of other words — like “eigh” and “dge.”

Cruz grew up on the streets of Los Angeles, where he had to look over his shoulder on his way to school, wary of any unfamiliar vehicle or person. He had a mountain of disadvantages to overcome.

He had reading and math problems.

Then, in fourth grade, he came across Ms. Taylor, and she offered to tutor him.

“She taught me a lot,” Cruz said. “She didn’t make any money, but she taught me a lot.”

His mission: To give back what was given him.

“I feel blessed being able to give back what I’ve received so far,” Cruz said.

In college and working toward a possible goal of becoming a youth probation officer, Cruz said he needed experience. The inmate literacy program was the ticket.

“As soon as I came around (to The Literacy Center), I realized what their goal was,” Cruz said. “It’s a wonderful program. It’s a wonderful gain. Nobody’s losing.”

Cruz said his volunteering experience has taught him “patience and understanding.”

He added, “It’s taught me how to give more … You’re entering a world where you’ve never been.”

Jim Bret, inmate program coordinator at the Coconino County Detention Facility, said jails and prisons are filled with people who are illiterate or have low levels of literacy.

According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, about 60 percent of prison inmates and 85 percent of juveniles are estimated to be functionally illiterate.

“The goal was to have more education programs,” Bret said of the decision to come up with a literacy program for inmates and probationers locally.

Thus was born the Partnership for Literacy Rehabilitation.

The hoped-for outcome: “To have people leave our facility, go back into the community and be viable citizens,” Bret said.

And not come back.

Davis said the PLR was the culmination of years of work among several agencies, including Coconino Community College, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office and Literacy Volunteers.

The program got off the ground last year with a $10,000 grant from the Flagstaff Community Foundation and other charitable organizations.

LVCC began doing inmate assessments to determine literacy levels and establish the need for a literacy program. More than 80 assessments have been made to date.

This year, aided by a $20,000 grant, the program is in the phase of setting up instruction, including one-on-one sessions, computer literacy and legal literacy.

Carynn Davis, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Coconino County, said that the volunteers for the LVCC’s Literacy Center come from all walks of life. In any given year, about 200 volunteers cycle in and out.

“We need volunteers all the time,” Davis said. “We’re actually short right now.”

Currently, there are 45 active volunteers for four programs: The drop-in center, one-to-one matches, classes on- and off-site, and inmate and probation rehabilitation.

Volunteers do not need to have any specialized education, although some of the volunteers and participants do have literacy and language educational backgrounds, Davis said. Interested people are put through a four-component training that includes orientation, class work and in-the-field observation.

“Any volunteer who comes in, we try to find a place for them,” Davis said, adding that there are instructional and non-instructional opportunities.

Literacy Volunteers has been serving the residents of Coconino County for 20 years.


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