New Jersey State Prison in Trenton is the oldest continuously operating prison
in America. Constructed in 1831, this ornate Egyptian-style institution has been
visited by Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville as an example of modern prison
reform. Today, men are still residing in these original cells.
Jersey State Prison is now a maximum security prison
for inmates serving long sentences. Half of the prisoners
are convicted of murder, the average sentence is 50
years, and 75% of the inmates are illiterate.
many of these same men are achieving a measure of hope, a sense of personal freedom:
they are finally learning how to read.
DO YOU SPELL MURDER? chronicles a year in the life of these illiterate prisoners
and explores the powerful connection between illiteracy and crime.
Americas Prisons, 70% of Inmates Cannot Read or Write
prisons are full of poorly educated men and women who come from deteriorating
urban neighborhoods with failing public school systems. Almost three-fourths of
those incarcerated have not graduated from high school and a staggering 70 percent
are functionally illiterate and read below a fourth grade level. At New Jersey
State Prison the illiteracy rate is even higher.
the prison population in America has now reached over two million the largest
of any country in the world and inmates are facing tougher mandatory sentences,
men and women locked up without the ability to even read the newspaper are condemned
to a prison within a prison.
United States spends $40 billion annually on incarceration and less than two percent
of that on education for prisoners. Recognizing the staggering rate of illiteracy
and the lack of funding, inmates at New Jersey State Prison created their own
literacy program called L.I.F.E.
(Learning Is For Everyone). To fight the stigma attached to illiteracy, inmates
volunteer to teach other inmates to read in private one-on-one tutoring sessions.
Managed by the inmates themselves with support of community volunteers, the L.I.F.E..
Program has helped men achieve their personal goals of learning to read, writing
letters home or receiving their GED certificate.
inmate tutor becomes a certified Literacy Volunteer of America and learns the
skills needed to teach literacy to adults. Years of failure in school has left
many scars and the process of teaching adults to read can be a lengthy one but
these men now value the opportunity to learn.
after seventeen years, the L.I.F.E.. program has 46 tutors and has taught 236
men how to read, or write letters home. And 52 inmates have received their GED.
Are Overpopulated with Learning-Disabled Inmates
addition, a disproportionately high number of inmates have learning disabilities,
most commonly dyslexia. The U.S. prison population has a four-times greater number
of learning-disabled inmates than the general public. The L.I.F.E.. managers recognized
this need as well and sought the assistance of community volunteers such as ABC
Literacy Resources to train the inmate tutors with these specialized skills.
DO YOU SPELL MURDER? profiles several of these student-tutor teams working
together. The prisoners recount years of humiliation in the public school system,
where they were either held back repeatedly or promoted without adequate preparation.
Many have undiagnosed learning disorders. Almost all are dropouts. Their years
of frustration and anger were brought to unyielding conclusions at criminal trials
where they could barely grasp the legal documents and procedures that determined
film profiles one such student-tutor team from their first session through to
a year later when the student can read. Inmate tutor Sammy recounts that he was
functionally illiterate when he entered prison. While in prison he taught himself
to read and is now a poet as well as a tutor.
his student, shares his school history to reveal he was held back in the second
grade five times before he dropped out of school in the eighth grade. During the years filming, Sammy
discovers that Nathaniel has an undiagnosed learning disability which finally
explains his school failures. And most unexpectedly, at the end of the year, Nathaniel
is informed that The New Jersey Appellate Court reversed his two murder convictions
and ordered that he receive a new trial. The Office of the Public Defender argues
that Nathaniel's confession was inadmissible based in part on his illiteracy.
Nathaniel signed a confession that he could not read. His new trial is still pending
at this time.
Workshop Rehabilitates The Mind
DO YOU SPELL MURDER? visits an inmate poetry workshop called Prose
and Cons. These inmates demonstrate that the desire for education goes
beyond basic literacy to the human need to communicate and express themselves.
Operated under the supervision of a community volunteer, the workshop offers moving
testimony to the power of the written word.
inmate, Desi, explains his motivation for writing poetry:
have basically only two choices in here: either you're going to try to fight against
this onslaught of despair or surrender to its madness and escape into a world
where everything is cold and gray. ... I
think the more I express myself, the more I have grown as a person. Because before
I was just an angry youth. I wasnt trying to get my point across through
have shown the direct correlation between education and reduced recidivism. One
study by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department,
suggests that illiteracy is a primary cause of crime. This debate has been going
on for some time. HOW DO YOU SPELL MURDER? adds the personal stories of
those men who are not just the statistics of all these reports but people with
hope for changing their lives.