Life Skills and Literacy Intern, Knox County Jail
Anthropology and Sociology Major
Elisabeth Brewer has spent much of the past two years in a jail. And its
been an incredible place, she says, to get an education.
Brewer, a junior anthropology and sociology major from Lebanon, Illinois, helped the Galesburg chapter of Altrusa International, Inc., develop a life and literacy skills program for inmates of the Knox County Jail. As a sophomore, she spent 20 hours per week helping inmates learn to write resumes or fill out job applications.
"The first couple of classes were really rough," Brewer says. "I didn't know what I was doing. But my goal was to have them get at least one thing out of each class."
Brewer worked first with a class of male inmates, and then a second class for females and found that the participants had varied reading abilities. She decided to focus the curriculum on life skills rather than solely on literacy.
"It's empowering for them to learn to fill out a job application or write a letter to their lawyer," she says. "It gives them so much more to offer to society and the work force once they get out."
That was the thinking behind Altrusas conception of the program, explains Carol St. Amant, an Altrusa member and a lecturer in Knox's anthropology and sociology department.
"One of Altrusas goals is to promote literacy," St. Amant explains, "and we initiated the program as a way to cut down on recidivism. We were hoping that a life skills program would really give the participants a 'leg up' on job finding, if we helped show them how to go about it."
Brewer, who considers St. Amant a faculty mentor, got involved in the program at St. Amant's encouragement and decided to use it as a way to fulfill an internship requirement for a minor in social service.
"We gave her some leads on resources, but she did much of the work on setting up the program on her own initiative," says St. Amant. "She was innovative in ascertaining what the participants needs and interests were."
Brewer asked students to write journal entries. She gave quizzes on current events after having students read newspapers. She brought in representatives from Safe Harbor Family Crisis Center, as well as local lawyers, to help explain the judicial process.
"Its been an eye-opening thing to see that someone who can't follow simple reading directions is being asked to go through the trial process with all the legal talk," she says.
Since the program began, Brewer has worked with as many as 50 inmates, many of whom have been incarcerated on drug-related charges.
"I've never felt afraid there," she says. "The participants know there's a waiting list to get into the class, so they're almost always respectful to me."
With her internship completed, Brewer has recruited a fellow Knox student to help teach, in addition to obtaining a computer and small library for the jail. In the spring of 2005, the program received recognition at the district level of Altrusa for being an outstanding community literacy program.
And Brewer says she has received an education she couldn't have gained in a classroom.
"This has really taught me to look at others' perspectives and see that education is truly a privilege, not something that is owed to me."