Inmates leaning basic skills to increase success when released

Friday, February 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Norman Transcript

LEXINGTON, Okla. (AP) -- Joseph Harp Correction Center, east of Lexington, is a self-sufficient city for the current population of 1,235 inmates. Just like other cities, the men who live there call it home and refer to it as "Harp City."

And as any town in the nation, the population crosses all socio-economic and educational levels.

One small segment of the prison population is a group of 58 men with IQs of 70 or below.

According to George Williams, the warden's assistant and former prison chaplain, the 58 present a special problem; most lack basic living, reading and job skills.

"They come into the prison population without the most basic of skills," said prison chaplain Ron Grant. He said many of the men wouldn't even be in the prison system if not for the massive mental health reform a few years ago.

"These guys respond to our program as well as the general prison population," said Williams.

That where the Habilitation Programs comes in.

"The program takes inmates and makes them more self-sufficient," said psychologist Dr. Mark Englander.

"We literally start with teaching them how to boil water," he said.

Included in the program are cooking and cleaning classes, personal hygiene skills and basic living and reading programs.

"We teach them to read to their maximum capabilities," Grant said.

"Some of them coming into our program don't read well enough to be able to read the words on restroom doors."

While many of the inmates are capable of teaching many of the skills, volunteers are needed, especially in the clerical department.

"If we had a volunteer to do the clerical work that deals with confidential matters, it would free our staff to work with the inmates," said Williams.

While rehabilitation is the method used with the general inmate population, the men in the Habilitation program can't be rehabilitated if they never knew how to function to begin with.

Psychologist James Keithley and Englander oversee the program and work with the men.

They are also helped by Paul Daugherty, the program's recreational therapist. The program follows the men past release.

"When the men are released one of us goes with the man to take him to his new home," said Grant. "Even though it takes time, our men need that extra time to get them in their new places. Some of them even come back periodically for a few hours to get a hold on their problems. Some come back from time to time for a little extra counseling."

Thirty-one men have been discharged from the Joseph Harp program.

"We could use volunteers to follow up with the progress of the men," said Englander. "If we had volunteers, they could make home visits to see how they are doing."

Keithley said he could use volunteers for research projects.

"We've done a survey of other states' programs," he said. "If some were interested in doing some research, we could sure use them."

The program was built from the ground up, through grants and the innovation of its creators.

A separate building, much like a school, houses the program.

Within that building classrooms hold a kitchen, combination carpentry and small engine shop and reading lab.

The kitchen in the Habilitation Program was made possible through grants. Unlike the kitchen equipment in the prison cafeteria, the stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave are the size found in the average home so the men can learn to cook and use equipment like they'll find in the outside world.

The men leave the Habilitation Program knowing how to use a kitchen range and microwave and dishwashing skills. The tutor in the cooking program is an inmate who before his prison sentence was a chef.

While he excels with teaching Italian cooking, he also teaches the men how to bake cakes and cook simple food.

He has been teaching cooking for the past six years.

In the reading program, inmates sit at a computer and do their lessons at their own speed. They also have access to newspapers and are given encouragement for whatever degrees of progress they are able to make.

An inmate also tutors the small engine class and the carpentry class. The carpentry students built a storage shed and donated it to Habitat for Humanity. According to Grant that teaches them to give something back to the community, a concept that he says is new to most of them.

According to Williams, the program at Joseph Harp is the only program of its kind in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

The program, that began with 20 inmates has more than doubled in a few short years.

If and when a release date is given to the inmates in the Habilitation Program, they will have gained some employment skills.

Whether as a cook, carpenter or small engine repairman, they will have a skill that will make their entry back into society a little easier than it was before they entered prison.