Jail literacy program reaches far beyond bars

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

    Plumas County Literacy has launched a Second Chance program in the county jail. The brainchild of literacy coordinator Victoria Metcalf, the program’s starting point is with incarcerated student participants, but it reaches deep into the community to help these individuals long term.
    The program is funded in part through grants, including  $5,000 of state earmarked literacy funds from the jail and additional state library services funding. In addition, the county allocates $11,500 to the program.
    Metcalf also conducts Second Chance for Families, targeting anyone in the incarcerated person’s home—from partners, to children, to parents who may be live-in caregivers.
    The idea is to spread a wide net, helping all those affected by the trauma of incarceration and to create a stronger support system for the individual once he or she is released from jail.
    This big-picture approach makes good sense when Metcalf gives a detailed profile of the target population. Often, these individuals have had trouble in school since they were very young. They’ve either been labeled troublemakers, usually because they come from difficult or abusive homes, or they are struggling with attention deficit disorder or reading disorders that are typically undiagnosed in this population until years later.
    The sense that they are “bad” or “disruptive” kids follows them throughout their schooling and in the jail said Metcalf. Many still have a negative reaction to education.
    Metcalf said she’d rather see money being spent on this group when they start school, rather than when they show up in jail after years of failure.
    This cycle often continues when these individuals are jailed. Stress in the home often spikes. Animosity towards the jailed partner can get explosive.
    In some cases, lost income can also make it difficult for the remaining partner to pay for food and rent. All of this has repercussions for children, who often start to have problems in school themselves.
    Second Chance now offers classes at the jail three days a week. These include GED and adult basic-education classes.
    In addition, there’s a life skills class that offers individuals support for success by teaching them basic computer skills such as letter and resume writing along with how to explore the Internet.
    Metcalf used some of her program money to purchase three refurbished laptops for this purpose.
    Every step of the way students are encouraged in ways that help build confidence—something that has been sorely lacking in most of their lives. Participants pick up with a course wherever the teacher is at the time, and they can get extra help from mentors, who are fellow prisoners, if they wish.
    Metcalf tries to make sure students don’t attempt the GED test until they can pass it, so education becomes a positive experience rather than a confirmation of failure.
    She also encourages them to fill out a Second Chance form and come to the library upon release to continue their education.
    The program is aimed at reducing recidivism by helping participants take control of their lives. When they take responsibility, rather than blame someone for their problems, they begin to see the possibilities in their lives. This is not only good for prisoners and their families; it’s good for the community.
    Second Chance’s teacher, Lyn Walters, comes to the program with more than 20 years’ college teaching experience. She enjoys working with this population, unlike most teachers who find it scary said Metcalf.
    “What keeps you going is when they get it,” said Metcalf. Walters didn’t know what Metcalf meant until she saw it happen herself. It’s those moments that make the work so worthwhile.
    Margaret Miles, county librarian and Metcalf’s boss, has been a great support said Metcalf. “It’s an incredible job. I never knew I’d like it so much.”

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