On the Outside Looking In: U Students Help Inmates Get Their GEDs

Opportunities abound in the University of Utah’s Bennion Center for those wishing to try their hand at tutoring. Interested students can work with low-income elementary students, at-risk teens, the disabled, jail inmates?Jail inmates?

“It was a little intimidating,” said U sophomore Kristine Fitch of her first visit to the Salt Lake County Metro Jail, where she goes once a week to tutor an inmate in basic language and math skills. “You don’t know what to expect.”

“When you walk in, all the doors close behind you,” said Bret Hilton, fifth-year senior at the U. “There’s the feeling that if something went wrong, you couldn’t get out.”

Both Fitch and Hilton volunteer for the Bennion Center’s Inmate Services program. The program works in conjunction with Salt Lake County Services’ Booked program, which provides tutors for jail inmates wishing to get their high school diploma or GED.

Most go for the GED, an equivalency exam for those who never graduated from high school, said SalleeAnn Sudbury, director of the Inmate Services program.

Seventy-six inmates had filled out forms expressing interest in receiving a tutor when the Inmate Services program began in June. Applicants ranged in age from 18 to 57; some had a 10th grade education, others did not even know how to read.

“There is not a population more needy, more willing to work with you,” Sudbury said. The county asked her to recruit 50 tutors into the Inmate Services program. She currently has 10.

Tutors visit the Metro or Oxbow Jail once a week for one or two hours to work with inmates. The volunteers first apply for a jail pass, then attend an orientation and tour of the facility before being assigned someone to work with.

Hilton described his first experience walking into the jail as something to be remembered.

“The environment is much more aggressive. When you walk in in street clothes, they all look at you. Everything stops,” he said.

The volunteers receive the results of the inmates’ skills evaluation test, as well as their high school transcripts. Some GED and other materials are provided, but for the most part, the tutor creates the curriculum.

Hilton first taught a 6-foot 5-inch tall ex-drug dealer with a long ponytail.

“I was afraid. I didn’t know how I would ever to be able to work with him,” he said.

But he soon found a way of relating the subjects to something the man already knew. As a drug dealer, the student had worked a lot with numbers and just didn’t realize it.

“I could almost relate it to drugs. As a drug dealer, he was pretty much a businessman. He was pretty successful, it was just illegal,” he explained.

For Hilton, the trick was to get the man to transfer those skills to legal activities.

Hilton estimated the man’s reading and math skills were both on about a sixth- or seventh-grade level.

Tutoring sessions consisted of going over the previous time’s homework and assigning new things.

The work can sometimes be difficult, Sudbury said. “Lots of them have really low self esteem. They don’t think they can understand. You have to get them to let that barrier down.”

“I try to do visual stuff on the board?try to draw things out,” Fitch said. Many tutors try other innovative teaching techniques, such as visual brain teasers, she continued.

But the material can still be difficult to teach.

“The material in the GED is from high school. Sometimes it’s frustrating when they’re on an elementary level,” Sudbury said.

In addition, the jails are only temporary holding facilities where inmates often stay no longer than six months.

Many times, tutors work with an inmate for only four of those months.

“If you’re there for an hour or two?that’s 12 to 24 hours working with them, [and] you’re supposed to make up all the information from elementary to high school,” Sudbury explained.

Fitch agreed that the work can be difficult for teachers and for students.

“He finds it frustrating, but he also likes it because it’s the only thing he gets to do in jail. He gets bored, but he also realizes he needs to learn it,” Fitch said of her student.

Age creates another barrier. “It’s harder for them to go back and learn. The capability to learn decreases as you get older,” Fitch continued.

But she feels she has made a lot of progress. “We’ve gone a long way in math, from basic addition and subtraction to fractions?he’s catching on pretty well. He’s picking up on little grammar mistakes,” she said.

Sudbury has had similar experiences with the inmate she currently works with.

“The first three weeks, we were not getting anywhere, just going over all this?really basic stuff. He was trying to learn multiplication, and he wasn’t getting it. Then one week, something just snapped, [and] he just understood it. One day, in two hours, he learned all of the multiplication tables,” she said.

Hilton has found himself helping his student in other ways. The man opened up after realizing Hilton was not being paid, but rather volunteering to tutor him.

“I had him write some papers where he actually talked about his shortcomings and weaknesses. I got in a position with some influence where I would be able to help him,” he said.

He tried to give the man, who was recently released, advice for the future. Since ex convicts often have trouble finding work, Hilton believed the man, who had skills as a welder, should try to open his own business.

“It’s best for him to take his skills and start building his way up,” he explained.

But Hilton is realistic about his expectations.

“It’s one thing to talk about it, another to actually do it. But the thought was at least planted,” he continued.

Tutors do not keep in touch with their inmates after they are released, so there is no way to track their progress. Hilton hopes the man will go for his GED.

Despite the lack of tangible or immediate results, Sudbury said she feels confident the program makes a difference in the inmates’ lives.

“The first person I had, it was very frustrating. I felt like we didn’t get very far, he got released too soon. In retrospect, it’s amazing we got somewhere,” she said.

Working with inmates leaves the tutors changed as well.

“It’s kind of showing you not to judge. They’re good people, too,” Fitch said. “They have kids, they have wives or girlfriends. Even though they’re in jail, they’re not bad people.”

Hilton said only a difference in circumstances separates the inmates from the rest of the world.

“I realized quickly going in there, these people are no different from me,” he said.

The program also leaves its volunteers feeling that perhaps jail does not provide the needed solution.

“I think that there are other ways to deal with some things people go to jail for,” such as treatment programs, Fitch said.

Sudbury feels simply displaying an interest may be enough.

“You get to know the person that you tutor?what their background is. It’s almost like society has made them the people that they are. The Booked program is the first time anyone’s actually taken an active interest in them.”

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