Penn State peer tutoring program beneficial to inmates at SCI/Muncy

Jim Carlson
June 10, 2021

One objective of the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy is to assist those who require education the most — individuals who have unmet literacy needs … people whose needs many times are forgotten.

That’s what drives Kim Roush, adult education coordinator for the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy (ISAL) in the College of Education and program coordinator for the Penn State/Muncy tutoring program at the State Correctional Institution in that Lycoming County town.

The peer tutoring program is funded by a Pennsylvania Department of Education grant, and Roush identifies female inmates at SCI/Muncy who are qualified to tutor other inmates who choose to work to improve their basic education. 

Roush said she sees success in all “ways, shapes and forms,” but the primary sign is the difference she sees in individual inmates. “Whether it's the tutors, or whether it's the learners, it's a confidence boost for both of them,” Roush said.

“I always use the example of when a learner first comes into the education building to meet with me, they're usually very introverted, they're very closed off to everything. They come in kind of hunched and head down, and they are afraid; they don't want to admit to their weaknesses. After meeting with me, and especially after meeting with their tutors and realizing that it's a safe environment in an otherwise challenging environment, then you start to see them come in and you almost see the weight lifted off their shoulders when they walk in the door.”

According to Carol Clymer, associate teaching professor and co-director for ISAL as well as the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at Penn State, the program at Muncy also is designed to help people get their high school equivalency diploma.

“That's a way we measure our success in addition to their gaining skills in math or reading or writing,” Clymer said. “Another measure is for inmates to go on and take more courses, because there's a whole range of educational post-secondary courses that they can take in the prison.”

Additionally, the Goodling Institute is always looking for opportunities to do more. “We've applied for other grants to work in the county prisons, and we’re very interested in doing more across the state, replicating this model because it is so successful,” Clymer said.

“It's not new; peer tutoring has been around for a long time. I don't even think it's new in the prison environment. But I do feel — and I'm biased for sure — that the way that Kim has structured this program and how much attention she gives to the matching and how much training she provides for the tutors, that may not be so common. We really want to try to expand it.”

Mike Vail, director of the Career and Family Pathways direct service programs that serve Lycoming, Clinton and Centre counties, said many of the prison-based learners complete student satisfaction surveys. “When they talk about the impact of the program, some of them may have never opened up about that, but it's really incredible the type of feedback you get from those,” he said.

There are about 1,000 female inmates at SCI/Muncy and their average education ranges from adult basic education to doctoral degrees, according to Karen Oliver-Rider, state corrections principal. 

“The U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies and Prison Study found education and skills training is essential in preparing adults to successfully re-integrate into society and find jobs that provide sustainable incomes,” Oliver-Rider said. “This is important as over 95% of prisoners will return home one day.”

Vail said very few state-funded programs for adult education exist at a state correctional institution. When Clymer learned two years ago that state funding for peer tutoring programs was available, the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy applied to implement a program at Muncy.

Inmates learn about the program from the inmate channel on the facility’s television network, as well as word of mouth. Roush recruits tutors and learners.

“Someone would send me a request saying ‘I’m interested in being a tutor … I'm interested in being a learner.’ I would call them in and meet one-on-one with them,” Roush said. “I have a set series of interview questions that I go over with them, one set based on tutors and one set based on learners. We have a job description for both roles, and we determine if the tutor and/or the learner felt like it was an appropriate role for them to play at this time in their life.”

The program looks for a commitment from inmates of at least three hours per week, Roush said, although the COVID-19 pandemic affected that schedule beginning spring 2020. Roush still must work from her home. Because no internet learning is permitted by the Department of Corrections, Roush submits a weekly information packet and a weekly video. Inmates complete their packets and Oliver-Rider scans it and forwards it to Roush, who corrects it and sends it back to Oliver-Rider for redistribution.

While on site, subjects taught routinely vary, Roush said. From basic education topics aimed toward earning a high school equivalency diploma to working on basic speech phonics, the list also includes basic math through geometry, the sciences, social studies and ESL for those whose native language is not English. Roush must adequately match a tutor and a learner.

Intangible successes among the 80 or so participating inmates and tutors include a shift in the inmate’s demeanor in terms of confidence as well as a positive attitude toward education in general. Tangible results come from a Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), which at last issuance cited 52% of the learners who post-tested made a gain in their educational functioning levels, according to Roush.

Roush, when on site, also inquires among inmates what the program means to them. “I got some incredible responses to that,” she said. “Life-changing; confidence-building; it helped me. And a tutor said that being part of the program helped her with her communication skills and having appropriate interactions with others.

“The number of people that would tell me when they came into that room in the education building that it was their safe place — it was the one place at Muncy that they could go and feel safe.”

Roush for the past 13 years ran Tutors of Literacy in the Commonwealth, funded by the Department of Education, and Oliver-Rider in 2018 completed her dissertation titled “Teacher Perceptions of Trauma Informed Practices in the Female Correctional Education Setting.” Vail pointed out that Roush recently presented a national webinar for the Coalition on Adult Basic Education on her program, which generated interest about how to implement a peer-tutoring program in a correctional institution, including a request from the state of Missouri’s adult education organization to present at their annual conference.

The program’s success, according to Oliver-Rider, is because of Roush. “Employing a strength-based approach allows female inmates to overcome low self-esteem and lets the classroom members to become part of a team,” Oliver-Rider said.

More importantly, she said, it's what Roush brings to the institution that really sparked that interest among so many inmates. “It was palatable and observable the way Kim interacts with the inmates, with just being sincere about wanting to find out about them and how the program can help them, and then help others,” Oliver-Rider said.

“So it's a very cyclical program. During the conception, there was talk about how learners can become tutors. When Mike and Kim spoke of that I thought that was a very lofty goal, and maybe not tangible. But Kim proved me wrong in that she had learners in the beginning who, once they got their GED® or their high school diploma, turned around and became tutors themselves. So that was somewhat remarkable to do it within such a short timeframe. And that's what just proves the importance of this program,” she added.

Oliver-Rider has a poster hanging in her office with a quote from the late Helen Keller, an American author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer who lost her sight and hearing prior to her second birthday. The quote says: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

Said Oliver-Rider: “We all are optimistic as we look forward to Ms. Roush’s return to SCI-Muncy.”

Roush longs for that as well. “Yes, I often joke that it’s not often you hear someone say they can't wait to get back to prison, but that would be me,” she said.

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Last Updated July 07, 2021