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IndyBar: Improving Literacy, Improving Lives

November 2, 2016

By Tom Miller, Indy Reads Director of Programs; and Lucia Sheehan, Indy Reads Associate Director of Programs

Indy Reads was recently named the 2016 Indianapolis Bar Foundation Impact Fund Grant Recipient.

luciaandstudentmed-15col.jpg An Indy Reads tutor works with a student inmate.

One out of five adults in central Indiana read at, or below, a sixth grade level. Let that sink in for a minute. Next time you are walking down the street, count each person you pass; every fifth one represents someone in central Indiana who cannot read.

Indy Reads is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that promotes and improves the literacy of adults and families in central Indiana. We provide free and confidential tutoring to adults who struggle with reading and writing. In 2015, we provided literacy services to more than 1,300 adults. Our reach was the result of the 700 tutors who volunteer and donate their time to help our students improve their lives. We train our volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring services, and also to work in small-group literacy labs and classroom settings throughout the community. Our vision is to make Indianapolis a place where 100 percent of its residents can read.

In 2009, Indy Reads started a Criminal Justice program to provide literacy services in Marion County Criminal Justice institutions. We have expanded our program to include: CCA Marion County Jail II, Volunteers of America (VOA) Women’s Residential Facilities, Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry (PACE), Recycle Force, and Hamilton County Corrections. In 2015, 23 specially-trained jail tutors provided literacy coaching to 198 students through our network. Indy Reads offers the only literacy program to Central Indiana jail inmates, other than the GED/HSE prep program.indyreads-1col.jpg

In addition to the one in five Indianapolis adults who struggle with reading and writing, national research tells us that 70 percent of all prison inmates cannot read at a fourth grade level. Our students consistently ask the tutors for help reading and understanding the words and their meaning of the legal documents. They struggle with words like “alimony,” “restitution,” “subpoena,” “affidavit,” “appellee,” “precedent.” Even when they are able to read most of the words in the document, students continue to struggle with the concepts. Despite the great work of our public defenders, our students slip through the cracks. There is a need for a program that addresses both aspects of literacy: technical knowledge (reading and writing) and skills application (comprehension).

This fall and early winter, we will partner with members of the Indianapolis Bar Association to develop this new program. In the first quarter of 2017, we will launch these workshops in the jails and also with community partners throughout the greater Indianapolis region. This exciting new adventure offers a year-long joint program that will offer legal literacy workshops to our student inmates and to the Indy Reads community (including our tutors and un-incarcerated students). Members of the Indianapolis Bar Association will be invited to participate and provide leadership throughout the program development and implementation. Indianapolis Bar Association members may also volunteer in the delivery of these topics by offering volunteer time at the various workshops. The program will build upon the existing Indy Reads Criminal Justice literacy curriculum we already have in place by adding a legal education component for our students.

Indy Reads and the Indianapolis Bar Association volunteers will collaborate to develop these much needed workshops. They will focus on vocabulary words and legal concepts. Volunteer attorneys will be educating inmates on general topics and frequently asked questions, not giving case-specific legal advice. Potential workshops include topics like child support/visitation/paternity, driver’s license questions, post-conviction relief/expungement, taxes, financial/economical, and EEOC violations. All the curricula will be developed and delivered by members of the Indianapolis Bar Association through pro bono services. The workshops will have a fact/information sheet with answers to the top questions asked by our students. Our goal is to work with subject matter experts to develop these tools so that any volunteer attorney feels comfortable delivering the information. Indy Reads staff will then coordinate all workshops, schedule each bar association volunteer, and assist delivery as needed.

A recent Harvard Law Review article suggests that well-informed inmates will “filter out frivolous cases….reducing the burden on the courts.” With our legal literacy program, students “could submit better and more informed pleadings and comply more consistently with procedural requirements, increasing the likelihood of fair hearings for meritorious cases.” Furthermore, “increasing prisoner access to legal information could also foster literacy and civic engagement while allowing prisoners to contribute to the public discourse on matters of social justice.” Not to mention, the wonderful experience of seeing a student’s face light up and their self-esteem improve because for the first time, they understand what a word means or even know how to say it.

With the increased knowledge of the justice system, the student will be a better self-advocate and will be more likely to comply with the court, or at least understand the implications of failing to do so. Students in this program will better comprehend court documents and processes. Education leads to a higher level of confidence, stronger decision-making skills, and lower recidivism rates.

This program will benefit not only the students, but the community at large. Participants in this program can better navigate the justice system, and a much lower rate of returning to prison. Whereas an individual with no literacy help would be 70 percent more likely to return to prison, those who do get literacy assistance have only a 16 percent chance of re-incarceration. This equates to a cost savings of $25,000 per year per inmate.

Assisting the inmates in their education will help create more engaged and productive members of society, as well as give members of the Indianapolis Bar Association an opportunity to create sustainable change within their own community. We are excited for this partnership and the opportunity to make an impact on those in the criminal justice system. None of this would be possible without the generous funds provided to the project by the Indianapolis Bar Foundation.•

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