Reading behind the bars

Advocates for literacy in Kingston prisons continue a long tradition with roots at Queen’s

Kingston Penitentiary is one of five prisons with which the Queen’s Students for Literacy Prison Literacy Initiative volunteers.
Kingston Penitentiary is one of five prisons with which the Queen’s Students for Literacy Prison Literacy Initiative volunteers.
Photo by Eric Ferguson
Prison Literacy Initiative Chair Angela Ruffo says she has never felt unsafe tutoring an inmate in one of Kingston’s prisons.
Prison Literacy Initiative Chair Angela Ruffo says she has never felt unsafe tutoring an inmate in one of Kingston’s prisons.
Photo by Robin Kisbee

When Angela Ruffo was six years old, she learned how to read See Spot Run. Today, she’s helping adults twice her age learn to read at a similar level.

Ruffo, ArtSci ’09, is chair of the Prison Literacy Initiative (PLI), a program run by Frontier College Queen’s Students for Literacy (QSL). Ruffo, who has been working with PLI for three years, said part of the reason she loves her job is the response she receives from inmates.

“It’s great … when you see how enthusiastic they are to learn, and the reasons, too, why they want to learn. One man told us he wants to be able to write a letter to his mom,” she said. “Some people want to be able to get their grade 12 credit.”

Ruffo said one of the biggest challenges she faced when she started tutoring was the idea of tutoring an adult. She said she was never concerned about her safety or the stigma that comes with life behind bars.

“I never had a problem with that and I don’t think any of our tutors would,” Ruffo said. “If you were going to have a problem with that, you probably wouldn’t apply.”

Because so many people were interested in volunteering for the program—in addition to 10 returning tutors, 45 applied and 19 were given spots—Ruffo said she’s not tutoring this year. Applicants are chosen based on their dedication to the literacy cause and previous tutoring experience. Once chosen, they go through six hours of training—much of which concerns security issues.

QSL staff also interview the inmates their tutors will be working with—known as “learners”—to see what they want to focus on and what sort of educational background they have. After QSL interviews potential learners, they’re screened by the prisons for safety reasons.

Last year, Ruffo said, tutors had difficulty getting into Kingston Penitentiary because of lockdowns.

“Prisons can be an unstable environment,” she said. “You have to be prepared for that.”

She said Queen’s students have worked with Frontier College—a national, non-profit literacy organization—since the 1980s and there haven’t been any major safety issues in the prisons.

This year, tutors are working with five of the institutions in Kingston: Collins Bay Institution, Isabel McNeill House, Frontenac Institution, Kingston Penitentiary and the Regional Treatment Centre, which is associated with Kingston Penitentiary.

Tutors visit their learners once a week for two hours, Ruffo said.

“I think in an ideal world it would be more, but we’re volunteers—we’re all students,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone would think now it doesn’t matter that people in Canada can’t read. I don’t want to be a part of a society that doesn’t care that huge segments of the population are illiterate.”

Helen Appleby, ArtSci ’11, is working with PLI for the second year in a row. She said she got involved last year because she thought it sounded unique.

“When you think about volunteering or tutoring, you think about doing it with kids,” she said.

Appleby is QSL’s public relations and events co-ordinator. She said she’ll also continue to tutor once a week.

Last year Appleby worked with an inmate from Vietnam who was learning ESL. She said she never found out how long her learner had been in jail, nor if he had any other visitors.

“You’re not supposed to talk about anything personal,” she said. “The reality is that they’re in prison for a reason.”

Tutors are discouraged from revealing their last names, where they live, where they’re from, details about their family or any other personal information. And while they’re there to converse with inmates, they’re not supposed to pry, Appleby said.

“We’re encouraged not to ask them, ‘Oh, how did you end up in a maximum security prison?’”

John Barron is regional co-ordinator for Eastern Ontario at Frontier College. He said the organization was established at Queen’s in 1899 when Alfred Fitzgerald, a Queen’s professor, took students to what was literally the frontier in those days—logging and mining camps and railroads.

“He worked with the workers during the day and then during the evenings he had reading tents and he would teach the migrant workers literacy skills,” Barron said.

“Fitzgerald always thought that universities and colleges shouldn’t have walls and that education … should be taken out to the people,” he said.

Frontier College works with universities throughout Canada, but Queen’s is the only place where tutors volunteer in prisons.

In 2003, Barron said, the International Adult Literacy Organization did a survey in seven countries—Canada, the U.S., Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, Norway and Bermuda—and found there are four different levels of literacy within the adult population. Most university students would fall into the fourth level, but Barron said the “acceptable norm” is level three—people who can read newspapers relatively well.

He said the survey found 15 per cent of the 20,000 Canadians surveyed between ages 16 and 65 were at a level one and 27 per cent were at a level two, meaning 42 per cent were functionally illiterate.

Barron, a retired school principal, said illiteracy rates in Canada are up to 48 per cent, according to the Canadian Council on Learning.

“In prisons, it’s even worse because you have a different clientele,” he said, adding that illiteracy rates can be up to 80 per cent in some institutions.

Barron said literacy levels depend on factors such as demographics, socioeconomic situations and the immigrant population.

“There’s not one actual reason where we can say, ‘If we took care of that, it would improve literacy scores,’” he said.

Queen’s psychology professor Brian Butler taught an introductory psychology course at Collins Bay Penitentiary about 15 years ago.

This year, he’s teaching a class at Queen’s on literacy development that requires students to volunteer as literacy coaches in the community. Butler said he and his students noticed that inmates—both men and women—need to find a purpose to learn to read.

“I remember there was one inmate who really learned quickly because what she wanted to do was, in fact, become her own advocate and she wanted to write letters to people,” he said. “Because she was so highly motivated to do that, she learned the reading and writing skills very quickly.”

Butler said tutors usually take a different approach when teaching adult learners.

“You speak to an adult as an adult; you speak to a child as a child,” he said, adding that he thinks sometimes children are able to understand more complicated concepts than teachers think.

But, Butler said, there’s no difference between the learning process of a child and that of an adult. He said two of his students—one tutoring a 70-year-old Portuguese woman and the other a girl in the second grade—noticed their learners were making the same types of errors.

“They were at the same stage of reading,” he said. “Learning to read involves the same process no matter when you do it.”

Butler said he thinks it’s worth investing in prison literacy.

“If we made education freely available to every prisoner in every institution in Canada, I’m sure that would pay huge dividends in the long run,” he said.

But, the idea that we can achieve 100 per cent literacy is a myth, Butler said.

“In any population, you’re going to have five to 10 per cent of people who can only learn to read with extraordinary difficulty,” he said.

“I don’t think you can get 100 per cent literacy, but I think the important thing is just to get everybody to go as far as they can.”

Serving time with rhyme

It’s been a long time since John Rives entered a poetry contest.

Rives—who went into Collins Bay Penitentiary on a life sentence when he was 23 and was released on parole after 10 years—has been living in Kingston for the past 17 years. He is team leader with Life Line Inreach, which goes into prisons to meet with inmates who have received life sentences.

“Just being there to say, you know, ‘There’s a possibility of getting through this,’ and advising them to keep their minds active,” he said.

Rives said his first poem was published in 1986, after he had written 223 poems from his cellblock.

He entered a poem in a contest this week for the first time in 14 or 15 years.

He said the poetry he wrote in prison was “very self-involved.”

“You know, poetry about great philosophical things that I was coming to grips with in my own particular way,” he said jokingly.

While in prison, Rives—a high school valedictorian—also completed his second university degree from the University of Toronto. With a BSc in geology and a BA in history under his belt, he began working on a Master’s from Queen’s, but he said he couldn’t stay focused.

“It takes time to do time,” he said. “There are so many other pressures in prison.”

Although Rives stopped pursuing his education, he continued to write, printing his own chapbooks from a photocopier, he said.

His latest book, The Perfection of Guilt: New and Selected Poems, just came out this year. He said it’s a best-of collection from his first two books—Dead Time: Poems from Prison and Shackles and Silence: Poems from Prison—along with some poetry he has written since his release.

But Rives said he hasn’t written as much since he got out of Collins Bay.

“I write better when I’m depressed,” he said. “I wasn’t as prolific as I was when I was in jail.”

Much of his poetry—particularly the early writing—is dark, he said. But it also has a touch of Christian imagery. “Even when I’m in my darkest there tends to be a stream of hope, or at least anger saying, ‘Where is the hope?’”

While in prison, Rives also did some unofficial tutoring, helping fellow inmates with essays.

“Guys were pursuing university courses more commonly back then,” he said.

At Bath Institution, an official program for inmates to tutor each other was set up four years ago.

Doug Mason, the prison’s librarian and teacher, said Frontier College trains inmate tutors twice a year. An inmate co-ordinator matches tutors with learners and every Friday night they meet for a two-hour tutoring session.

“It’s very appreciated by the guys. It catches guys who are hesitant to go to school again and guys who may have a little bit of school but who are embarrassed to come forward with it,” he said.

—Kerri MacDonald

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