Program helps inmates develop reading skills 

When Joe was arrested and incarcerated five years ago, he couldn’t read the judge’s name as he heard the sentencing.

"It was like walking around blind-folded," he said.

Joe, 28, who entered Maguire County Jail illiterate, is one of hundreds of inmates who have benefited from a reading and writing program spearheaded by Project READ, a local nonprofit literacy program.

Project READ is entering its 20th year and has since expanded to include Cañada Community College, which offers transferable college credit to inmates who learn to read and write and pass on their skills to other inmates.

"They go in and then they leave with a transcript," said Jane Weidman, an English and reading professor at Cañada. "They’ve been takers and addicts their whole lives. Now they become givers."

Last week, Joe, who requested his full name not be used in this story, finished his reading and writing exams required for the GED. Originally from East Palo Alto, he was imprisoned in 2002 for homicide. He now is preparing to tutor three other inmates, something he views as a second chance on life.

"The best is Harry Potter," he said. "I’ve read all six of them. Some of the guys look at me and say, ‘Harry Potter? What the hell?’ But I love it. It takes me out of here."

Kathy Endaya, director of Project READ, estimates at least 80 percent of inmates at Maguire read and write under a seventh grade level.

"Our focus was really on families and breaking the cycle of illiteracy on this generation," she said. "So many of the parents are incarcerated and that’s why we started looking at working with the Sheriff’s department."

Another part of the program records inmates reading a children’s book. The book and the cassette tape are then sent to their children.

"Often times, one of the motivations is that they want to help their children," said Dana Hartman, Joe’s tutor. "At first it can be frustrating and embarrassing, but just admitting it and realizing that there are other people in their situation helps them."

As a teenager, Joe survived school by having friends copy homework for him until he dropped out of Carlmont High School.

"I barely passed my driver’s license test," he said. "I would drive on the freeway and my friend would say, ‘This is the exit,’ and I’d have to picture [an image of an object] that matched that street or sign."

Joe will continue tutoring "either inside here or out, wherever I go," because "if you teach them, you learn twice."

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