The “Learning is for Everyone” (L.I.F.E.) Program was founded at New Jersey State Prison in 1985 by William Burke, a community volunteer with a background in juvenile justice, who wanted to do something about illiteracy in the prison population:
I recognized the staggering illiteracy rate in the prisons and realized that a lot of these guys carry a stigma about their inability to read. I thought that a one-on-one tutor session with another inmate would give them the confidentiality needed to encourage them to come back to school. I also know there is a lot of talent in the prison population and the men could run this program themselves. All I had to do was ask the inmates and they jumped at the offer.
L.I.F.E. used prisoner volunteers trained by community volunteers to tutor inmates who were illiterate or functionally illiterate. The Program operated at the prison for almost 25 years until early 2011 when it was permanently discontinued and replaced by a daytime literacy tutoring program run by Education Department staff. It is unknown whether the daytime program still operates.
During its years of operation, L.I.F.E. was lauded as a model program by prison educators and recognized as a Point of Light under the program started by the Administration of President George H.W. Bush.
The success of L.I.F.E. was due to the involvement of the inmates and their sense of ownership of the program. Inmates volunteered to tutor their fellow inmates for a two-hour evening session once a week. Each tutor was trained and certified by the Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) as a certified reading instructor. LVA educators Robert and Anne McCleery held classes to instruct inmate tutors on the best methods of instruction for adult literacy students. The L.I.F.E. prisoner managers then matched these tutors with students to begin their tutor-student sessions. By November 2010, the L.I.F.E. program had over 80 participants with approximately 40 tutors and managers and 40 prisoners being tutored.
In the early 1990s, the L.I.F.E. managers produced a detailed “How To Manual” with detailed explanations about the structure of the program and suggestions for how to make it work in a prison environment. By November 2010, the L.I.F.E. program had over 80 participants with approximately 40 tutors and managers and 40 prisoners being tutored.
The Effectiveness of L.I.F.E.
While it operated, the L.I.F.E. program offered many benefits to the New Jersey State Prison community.. Not only did it help many prisoners gain literacy, but it also gave prisoners working as tutors the chance to spend their time in a positive, supportive role and to gain organizational and management skills. Former NJSP Administrator Roy Hendricks explained the value of the program from the point of view of prison administration:
This institution is geared more towards compliance … Inmates are doing 50, 100, 300 years. If an inmate goes to school over a period of time, he begins to feel better about himself and the number of disciplinary charges he incurs are significantly reduced…We depend on our volunteers to provide positive programming for the men here at New Jersey State Prison.
Over 136 tutors worked in the program over its years of operation, and at least 236 students reached their personal goals of obtaining a GED, enrolling in school, reading a book, reading to their children or reading letters from home.
ABC Literacy and L.I.F.E
ABC Literacy Resources began working with the L.I.F.E in 1998. From that time until the program was discontinued, ABC volunteers provided a variety of teaching materials and conducted specialized training sessions to L.I.F.E. tutors in techniques for working with students with learning disabilities. Those techniques included multi-sensory learning strategies that helped prisoner tutors achieve success with students who did not respond to standard tutoring techniques ABC volunteers also conducted poetry and other enrichment classes for prisoners in the L.I.F.E. program
ABC is particularly proud that it was able to provide L.I.F.E. tutors with tools for working with learning disabled students. The American prison population has a four times greater percentage of learning-disabled individuals than the general population. Specialized training using multisensory strategies is needed to teach this population.