Stillwater Prison Literacy Project



This account is based on the personal experiences of Thorwald (Tory) Esbensen, MicroEd's President and Instructional Designer.


For three years, I conducted a project at Minnesota's maximum security prison in Stillwater. Its purpose was to teach illiterate prisoners to read. I wrote and donated all the software for this project, and one of my sons, who is president of his own computer company, donated the hardware.


How this project finally came to see the light of day is worth recounting.


As so often is the case, other - seemingly unrelated - things had to happen first. Which they did, beginning in 1990.


One of my daughters, who is a Unitarian minister, had been serving as a guardian ad litem in difficult foster care cases. For those who do not know what a guardian ad litem is, it is a court appointed person whose job it is to represent the best interests of the child rather than the views of the contending parties.


Frequently, my daughter would express shock and anger at the cavalier way in which the fate of children would be decided on the basis of arbitrary administrative practices that had nothing to do with their welfare.


After hearing more than I could stand about these cases, I finally decided I could no longer remain on the sidelines. For the first time in my life, I became actively involved in politics at the state and local level, hoping to help change things on behalf of these unfortunate youngsters.


One thing led to another, and I began speaking to various Senate and House committees concerning needed legislative reforms on this issue. Then - although I am a "lily white" Scandinavian - the Minnesota Suburban NAACP asked me to become its Political Action Chair, and I started writing articles for INTERRACE Magazine on topics such as the problems confronting multi-racial foster children. And so on.


Now back to the Stillwater Prison Literacy Project. I wanted to get such a program underway, using some interactive teaching techniques that I had been mulling over for a long time. The question was, how might I obtain the necessary approval so that things could begin to happen?


I decided to set up an appointment with the gentleman who served as curriculum director for Minnesota's state prison system. Inasmuch as his name suggested that he was a lefse and lutefisk-eating Scandinavian like myself, I thought this would be an easy meeting to arrange. But no. His office would not even return any of my several phone calls.


This is where my ongoing work in the field of foster child politics unexpectedly paid off.


Another fellow and I were having a foster child meeting with the governor's deputy chief of staff - a bright and vigorous African American woman who had obviously shattered her own glass ceiling.


As our meeting was about to end, I mentioned that I was having trouble getting my Stillwater literacy proposal listened to by the prison curriculum director. The deputy chief of staff nodded, jotted something down on a piece of paper, and we adjourned.


A few days later, my phone rang. It was the curriculum director. He was all sweetness and light: "How can I help you, Mr. Esbensen?"


It took no more than twenty minutes of telephone conversation to arrange the entire project.


I want to tell you something about this project. Its purpose, as I have mentioned, is to teach illiterate prisoners to read.


Let me set the scene.


Minnesota's maximum security prison at Stillwater was built in 1914. It has cell capacity for about thirteen hundred adult male felons. It is estimated that sixty percent of the inmates are white, twenty-six percent are black, six percent are American Indian, and seven percent are Hispanic or other. At the time of admission to prison, approximately eighty percent have histories of chemical abuse, and over fifty percent have been convicted of crimes against persons.


The prison is home of The Prison Mirror, the nation's oldest continuously operating inmate newspaper. First published in 1887 at the original territorial prison, the newspaper's founders included Jesse James gang members Bob and Cole Younger.


I was soon introduced to the Level One Reading Supervisor there - a marvelous woman - tough-minded but motherly. The prisoners genuinely seemed to admire her. She obviously cared about their academic welfare.


Some ground rules were quickly established.


Two of the inmates, Darrell and Dick, were assigned to be my assistants. They were both convicted murderers. Dick had been on death row in another state before being transferred to Stillwater.


Our students were to be the "hard core" cases - not in terms of violence, but on the basis of their having failed to learn much with any of the instructional materials in the prison's learning laboratory. This included other computer programs.


When I showed the Reading One Supervisor my software and explained how it would work, she merely said, "If it works with the students you're going to get from me, you can count me as a believer."


And so the project started.


Both Darrell and Dick were conscientious monitors of our students. And as the lessons began to function as designed, they became enthusiastic commentators about what was taking place.


Darrell was particularly impressed by the progress of Rolando, a young Hispanic inmate.


"I worked with Rolando for five months in another literacy program," said Darrell. "We achieved nothing. I mean nothing. We made zero progress. Everything was too hard for him. Now he is beginning to learn. And this has made a great change in his attitude. Now when his lesson time is up, he doesn't want to quit. He has become a different person."


Dick had the same kind of success stories to tell about the students he was seeing.


"These lessons," said Dick, "are really teaching them to read. And you can tell, as they sit at the computer keyboard, how engaged they are with what they are doing."


Darrell liked to talk about an especially dramatic example of progress for one of his students. "This man," said Darrell, "had worked for ten months in another part of the laboratory with other learning materials, including other computer programs. He learned absolutely nothing. He couldn't even master the vowel sounds. Then he began to work with our lessons. In two weeks, he was able to do what he had not been able to do in ten months with the other stuff."


I asked my two assistants whether they would agree with me that success in learning is ultimately the prime motivator for serious students."


"Yes, indeed," said Darrell. "Let me tell you something. Every Friday is Game Day in the learning laboratory. But my students often come to me and ask to do more work with our program. They would rather do this than play games. They know they are learning to read."


Because my assistants were proving to be such reliable and careful workers, I decided one day to get their reaction to a different kind of proposal.


"You know," I said, "although I have written all of the software that we are currently using, I am not really a programmer."


They looked at me in astonishment.


"That's right," I said. "What happened is that one of my sons, who is a programmer, created a special kind of software that enables me to communicate with my computer in plain English. In effect, this software teaches my computer to understand the commands that I give it in ordinary English. My computer then writes the program that I have requested. Pretty neat, eh?"


More astonished looks.


"Tell you what," I continued. "If you're interested, I'll show you how to write those English commands the computer will understand. Then you can develop some additional lessons that will be helpful to our students. Are you with me?"


Darrell and Dick both nodded vigorously. So I taught them how to use CLAS, the acronym for my son's Computerized Lesson Authoring System.


As things turned out, this was only the beginning. They soon felt so good about the quality of their own CLAS-created lessons that they went to the warden with an unusual proposal. If he would allow it, they would buy a computer with their own money and use it to develop interactive instructional software for other inmates. The warden not only endorsed this idea but had the prison itself buy the computer. Then he took things a step further. He assigned a separate prison cell for Darrell and Dick to use as their special writing room for software development.


As you can imagine, I was elated by what was happening. I decided that other correctional facilities around the country might be interested in what was going on at Stillwater. Filled with optimism, I wrote personal letters to the top two correctional officials in all the other forty-nine states, plus some other places as well.


I received one reply - a brief letter from Washington D.C., and that from an underling who had apparently been given the task of expressing interest without meaning it. Despite a number of phone calls I made trying to talk to the writer of that letter, I was never able to hold a conversation with anyone except the receptionist.


I was left with the firm impression that regardless of the rhetoric emphasizing the importance of literacy as one facet of the fight against crime, most of this is just empty talk. To the extent that something is being done, it seems to be mainly more of the old tried and untrue.


As for the Stillwater project, it is still continuing. That, at least, is something.


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