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updated: 8/3/2012 12:35 PM

Inmates now learn English in McHenry County

Case worker: Learning English helps inmates

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The first graduates of the new English as a Second Language program at the McHenry County jail got their certificates of completion Thursday, and the program -- a partnership with McHenry County College -- was such a success that officials are planning another one in the fall and possibly more.

Six male inmates -- a mixture of inmates from the county, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- graduated from the ESL program, which began June 12, said McHenry County sheriff's Lt. Rebecca Sylvester, who oversees most of the jail's programming. The ESL program started at full capacity with 14 inmates, but the others were released or moved elsewhere before completion, she said.

The six graduates were all from Mexico, she said. "Because we do have foreign nationals, it's important to help them in any way we can," she said.

The program is available only to male inmates because of the small number of female inmates and the jail's already packed schedule with GED programs, Bible study and Alcoholics Anonymous, Sylvester said. In July, the jail had an average population of 412 men and 28 women.

The idea of having an ESL program at the jail came from two nuns who run the jail's pastoral care program for immigration detainees, said Sylvester, who proposed the idea to MCC officials in February. MCC instructors already teach GED classes at the jail.

MCC Dean of Adult Education Rick Clute said the ESL program was a success despite its high attrition rate. ESL falls under the umbrella of adult education at MCC, which also includes adult basic education, adult secondary education and citizenship classes. The jail's ESL program cost $1,978 out of adult education's annual budget of almost $900,000, half of which comes from state and federal grants, he said.

"We will continue the program as long as we can," he said. The decision will be based on factors such as instructor availability and interest from inmates, he said.

ESL programs in jails can sometimes turn into a sort of "social time" for inmates, but the one at McHenry County jail exceeded expectations, instructor Lisa McCord said. The program ran three hours a day, two days a week.

"It went exceptionally well," she said. "They were very serious students, were very invested in learning, wanted to know more than just the language and grammar. They wanted to know the culture as well."

McCord initially agreed to teach only for the summer but has since decided to keep going. "I'm in for the long term," she said.

Because of the nature of county jails, which hold inmates before sentencing and for sentences of up to a year, many inmates leave before completing the program, but it's still a crucial component in preventing recidivism, officials said.

"If you're in a country where you don't speak the language, it's much more difficult to adapt socially, to live. It's hard to find work, do business, raise your children and be a member of society without being to be able to speak the language," said Mark McCorley, a re-entry specialist -- or case worker -- at the Lake County jail. The jail has had an ESL program through College of Lake County for more than a decade.

Susan Neustrom, executive director of JUST, which runs adult education programs at DuPage County jail, said the jail has had an ESL program for about two years. All the volunteers who teach ESL are instructors are from College of DuPage.

"We are very pleased with the results. It's always a challenge to have someone stay and complete because everyone comes and goes very frequently. ... It's up to us to be creative and hold that individuals," she said. "I don't think it's common practice. It certainly should be. Individuals who are incarcerated have some time, and having them work on their English and allowing them to understand what may be going on and be able to communicate is so crucial."

Cook County jail also has an ESL program, run through the Pace Institute, a division of the Safer Foundation, said Cook County sheriff's office spokesman Frank Bilecki. All the instructors are volunteers, he said.

Kane County jail doesn't have an ESL program, although it offers a GED program in Spanish, Kane County sheriff's office spokesman Pat Gengler said.

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