Tag Archives: Adult Literacy


Another poem from the prolific writer – Gordon Grilz. He is serving a life sentence in the Arizona Department of Corrections. His words and twists are among my favorite.

Gordon GriIz


Bury me under a cloudy sky
with a cold wind and the threat of rain.
Put me in the ground when the grass has died
before me and the trees stand naked
against the overcast haze
of some November morning and I will not
rue so much this passing
nor grieve so hard this leaving.

I will descend upon you in the snow that falls,
be with you in the changing of the season,
the turning of the leaves,
and the moving of the shadows.


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It’s All About Corrections… or not

Another piece of poetry written by Gordon Grilz. He carefully plies his words and speaks the truth of private prisons. The almighty for profit beasts that warehouse human souls with no concern for positive programming to help eliminate the horrific recidivism rates, at least those in my state of Arizona.

If a private prison has 1500 beds and the state fills 750 beds, the state still pays for all 1500 beds. Isn’t that a fine example of fiduciary responsibility with tax payers funds?

I recently learned that one of our oldest Senator’s in this illustrious state has taken funds from a private prison to the tune of over $30,000.00. I trust the information as it came from a religious website that is adamant about social justice.

Gordon Grilz


The prisoners on the
make-work crew
are creating crop circle designs
in the dirt with their rakes
at ten cents an hour.
Modem hieroglyphics
record their histories
on the institutional landscape.

From the other side
of the canal bank
we hear the report
of gunfire as the guards
sharpen their skills
at the shooting range
pop pop pop
pop pop pop pop pop

It’s a parallel nightmare
in an overcrowded prison,
battleship gray building
full of double bunks
and no hope,
a human warehouse
where failures are stored
out of sight
out of mind.
When there is no more room
Arizona leases storage facilities
in other states
exporting its
throwaway population.

At night the desert reverts
under the shadow of the saguaro
as coyotes reclaim
their territory
from men with their
chain link obsession.

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Adult & Child Literacy

All literature, and literacy, is born from the human need to tell stories, to tell stories about one self or about others, to tell stories about the world to better understand our existence, the others and the universe we live in. All the stories, the myths, the fables and the novels, including those addressed to children are, in fact, the result of this wish and this basic need: they help us to live, to survive; they help children to grow up and develop.

I became a certified Motheread/Fatheread Instructor in 2006.  In an adult male prison, we called this program Fatheread. Getting this program up and running was a challenge in the prison system!  Especially with a limited budget.

This was a program for fathers with children under the age of ten years.  Inmates would submit an application for consideration and after verification of their children, current disciplinary violations and ensuring the children or child were not victims of their crime, I would select 10-participants from each unit to participate.

These inmates would receive five children’s books and we begin the process of meeting weekly for six weeks to learn to read these children’s stories using expression and character voices.  When the inmate felt “ready” I would record them on DVD reading the books to their children.  They made craft items that highlighted the book themes. When all the “items” were ready, they sent the books, DVD and craft items home to their children.

This program was available to the inmates at no cost, with the exception of mailing the items home.  The inmates have “homework” assignments and reports to write.  For example, one of the books used could be “Amelia’s Road.” A suggested the adult book would John Grisham’s novel, “A Painted House” as it is amazingly similar.

Funding for this program came from the “community.”  After my first run, one family was so impressed with the program; they donated $500 to keep it up and running.  A local community business donated another $500 and I was able to purchase the children’s books through the Scholastic Book literacy project at a substantial savings. My husband and I purchase the mini RW/DVDs to record the inmates and usually the art supplies for their crafts.  You can’t put a price on learning, reading, and parenting when it comes to inmates and their children.

Motheread was developed in North Carolina and was primarily used in the Women’s Prisons. Over the years it developed into a more broad based literacy program, sometimes being utilized in preschool environments and allowing the mothers to be trained.

The Motheread/Fatheread curriculum uses children’s books, and adult poems and narratives to teach literacy skills to adults, with an emphasis on developing skills in all four areas of literacy:  listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  Additionally, the lessons help parents understand the importance of reading regularly to their children.  Parents not only learn the “why” of reading with their children, but also the “how.”

Some of the men became very emotional when recording their DVD’s. I allowed them all to add a personal video note to the child/children. Some would expound upon the story theme to relate an even deeper, more personal lesson or family value to their child/children.

These men valued the opportunity to participate in this program and did not jeopardize it by stealing from the program. They also knew if they had any major disciplinary “tickets” while taking the course, they would be summarily dropped from it.

It was a labor intensive program, but well worth the time and cost. Literacy programs are worthy endeavors.

~The Prison Librarian

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Attempting to run a prison library is a challenge, at best. Funding is sparse and the allocations were generally $7.00 (plus or minus) per inmate per year. All purchasing of books, periodicals, newspapers and library equipment must come from this pot of tax dollars. I learned to be creative. I learned to negotiate the best deal possible. I would find the address of publishers of request donations for our Creative Writing Workshop to supplement those donated by Richard Shelton, Regents Professor of the English Department of the University of Arizona. Richard was the volunteer who established Creative Writing Workshops in the Arizona Department of Corrections. He is an accomplished author in his own right. You can read about his excursion in his book “Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.”

One such publisher I contacted was thrilled to send volumes of poetry and prose our way. They were new, never touched books to thrill the inmates so inclined to devour them.

A number of the books that were sent were bilingual, then translated into English. One such book was authored in Bosnian and written in Cyrillic script, then an English translation followed. Amazingly, there was a young man in the prison who was from Bosnia. I held the book of poetry out and waited for his arrival to the library. When he did, I called him to the office and showed this young man the book. He was not proficient in English, but the look on his face and the and tears in his eyes spoke so very much.

Communication in one’s Mother tongue is an amazing thing. The inmates made a homemade card and signed it. I forwarded it to the publisher. I included a note with this story. He called me and promised even more books. He was good to his word and abundantly generous.

I shared books with a number of prisons, preferring not to hoard them at my facility alone.

April was always National Poetry Month and we would host Poetry Slams – well, the best we could on the inside. Inmates were allowed to read original works as long as they were “socially acceptable” or other published works. When an inmate had read his poem, to show appreciation, instead of applause, we “finger snapped”.

It was good “training,” if you will, for the time they would be released and then be subject to job interviews. This was practice for maintaining composure and learning to practice “presence”.

Sometimes, just on a lark, if things were slow in the library, I would select a poem written in Spanish then translated to English. Being a “border” state, we never lacked for Spanish speakers in the prison system. I would ask for a volunteer to read the poem in its mother tongue, then I would follow up with the piece in English.

The poem below is a grand example of this.

in the original Spanish

Como Tú 

Por Roque Dalton

Yo como tú amo el amor, la vida, el dulce encanto de las cosas el paisaje celeste de los días de enero.

También mi sangre bulle y río por los ojos que han conocido el brote de las lágrimas. Creo que el mundo es bello, que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.

Y que mis venas no terminan en mí, sino en la sangre unánime de los que luchan por la vida, el amor, las cosas, el paisaje y el pan, la poesía de todos.

translated into English

Like You

By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman)

Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.

~The Prison Librarian

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An Unfinished Life

Mark Spragg wrote a novel in 2004. It was titled “An Unfinished Life.” It was selected by the Arizona State Library as the One Book Arizona selection. The State Library did promotions such as this to increase the love of reading and literacy in the state of Arizona.

At the time, I was able to get a number of copies of the book as well as the Leader’s Guide at no cost. I wanted to facilitate a book discussion group. This title was (and continues to be) an extraordinary tale of love, forgiveness, and of a complex, prodigal homecoming. Fitting, I thought, for a prison.

I advertised the event in the library and utilized a sign-up sheet. Imagine my surprise when all ten slots filled up. The inmates then began to sign names below, just in case someone was moved, released or dropped out.

I learned early on not to ask, “have you read the chapters for this week’s discussion?” These men were adults and my job was only to develop a love of reading in their lives. It was not to make them feel guilty or “less than” for not reading the required chapters. It was my hope that reading would become a discipline they would continue upon their release from prison.

I often told the inmate patrons that getting lost in books could and would help them to “escape” the confines of prison (if you will). Who doesn’t recall the transporting effects of feeling the sand under your feet while reading Johann David Wyss’ “The Swiss Family Robinson?” After all, it was about a shipwreck; a deserted island; a single family wondering if and how they can survive. As a child, I could get so lost inside a book that I would not hear a family member trying to get my attention (to set the table for dinner as an example). Perhaps it was selective hearing loss.

We had great discussions about the selected book. It was exciting to see them show up faithfully every week. With book in hand we would sit and discuss the highlights of the week’s reading. Sometimes they saw more depth of the characters than the leader’s guide brought out. Most amazing to me, was the diversity of the group. Multiple races, multiple belief systems, yet here they were reading a work of fiction based upon life, loss and the simplicity of living the rugged life of the ‘cowboy way’ in Wyoming.

When we had finished our five week group discussion, each of the inmates submitted a “formal” report on the discussion group that was submitted to the Arizona State Library as well as their own comments about the book and program. I located a DVD that was made from the book. I rented it, advertised it though out the library and prison yard. It was produced by Robert Redford and he also starred in it as well as Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. I set a date to show the movie to the population, with hopes the reading group would show up. Indeed they did!

Now mind you, I didn’t show movies in the library often, and when I did it was for educational benefits. There was always a lesson plan and a Q & A sheet the inmates had to answer and submit. When the inmates would exit before filling out the reports it was often months before I would show another movie. It wasn’t’ entertainment – it was education. I always did a cursory count of how many were there viewing the movie. That was compared to the number of reports I received back.

Sometimes I heard my clerks in deep conversation with other inmates saying, “She told everyone straight up reports were required. Because they weren’t turned in there won’t be a movie for quite a while. You did this to yourselves.”

At the appointed time the Reading Group entered the library and one-by-one they sat down to prepare for the movie. Ultimately, what happened was one-by-one they got up and left at various times during the movie. Without a doubt, each one of them had a look of disappointment and dismay on their faces when walking out. One of them looked at me and said, “This is garbage! It isn’t anything like the book!” I told him, “Well then, you got it!” “Got what?” he said. “That there is a vast difference between the written book or a novel and what Hollywood try’s to sell us,” I replied. He smiled and nodded in the affirmative.

By the way, I just went and checked Amazon and this movie had a 4+ star rating! And we thought it was poorly done as compared to the book! Education is always a wonderful thing.

~The Prison Librarian

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