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One inmate struggled with attention deficit disorder to such an extreme he had to point at each letter of a word in order to stay focused as he read, but he didn’t quit.

Another inmate, hesitant at first to meet with literacy tutors at the county jail, eventually learned to appreciate the help they provided improving his reading and asked jail administrators if he could meet with those tutors more frequently.

Another man, who couldn’t speak English very well, became so enthusiastic about meeting literacy tutors each week that he expressed plans to continue working with those tutors once he was released from the Lancaster County jail.

Jail administrators and a local literacy program director shared those stories recently about a literacy program at the county jail that began in early February.

“It really goes a long way toward boosting confidence and self-esteem,” said Brenda Fisher, programs director for the jail. “I think it just fills a much-needed gap in the educational services we provide.”

Administrators at the new county jail, 3801 W. O St., enrolled 16 inmates in the pilot program. Five Lincoln Literacy volunteer tutors visited the jail each Tuesday night during the 12-week program, meeting with inmates in small group sessions. All but one of the inmates was male.

Lincoln Literacy tested each inmate before beginning their tutoring sessions and then tested each of them again once they completed the program.

All but one of the inmates who completed the program showed improvement on tests, said Clay Naff, executive director of Lincoln Literacy. Inmates showed as high as 24 percent improvement.

Of the 16 who began the program, nine completed the final test. Four were released from jail before the program ended, and two dropped out. One didn’t complete the final test.

“I was really, really impressed,” Naff said. “The test results were exceptionally good.”

County officials were so impressed with the $1,600 pilot program they recently approved funds to continue it until at least December at a cost of $200 per class. Inmates pay for the program through their phone time and commissary purchases at the jail, Fisher said.

Naff said inmate funds cover about two-thirds of the program’s costs, with the rest coming from donor funds provided to Lincoln Literacy. He said he wanted a literacy program at the jail since 2006 but struggled to find space inside the old county jail, 605 S. 10th St.

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When the county moved inmates into the new county jail in September, Lincoln Literacy saw an opportunity to host the literacy program there with the extra space at the new facility, Naff said.

Tutors must undergo five hours of Lincoln Literacy training, as well as two hours of training by jail staff, before meeting with inmates. They also must undergo background checks by both the nonprofit and jail administrators.

“That’s a fairly high hurdle for a volunteer,” Naff said. “Happily, Lincoln is a fairly volunteer-minded community.”

He said he expects two or three more additional volunteer tutors will help teach inmates during the recent session that began Tuesday.

The inability to read can cause adults to feel humiliation as they are often forced to depend on others to read words for them, Naff said. Learning to read not only improves their self-esteem but provides them with job opportunities that might prevent them from violating the law again, he said.

“If they don’t increase their ability to engage in basic communication, to fill out job applications, they’re going to have such a narrow range of options,” he said. “The likelihood is they’ll be in there again.

“This is worthwhile, not only for the people we engage but for the whole community.”

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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