Chapter Thirteen ~ Narda Goes to Prison
In May of 2012 there was an opportunity to teach a pilot program at a prison in Kuna, Idaho, outside of Boise.
Three friends have volunteered to join me on this quest: Lauri, Jonathan and Fred.
An hour earlier, we had been eating waffles at our hotel near Boise. As we pull up to the prison, I am wishing my last meal had been a little better. I see barbed wire, razor wire and double barbed wire.
We check in at the first low cement building, show ID, get fingerprinted, fill out paperwork and acquire our visitor badges. A guard instructs us to park in front of the four-story cement building in the distance. Once parked, we approach the main gate. Fred pushes the buzzer. There is a loud ‘CLANK’ and the thick metal door unlatches. The container we enter is outdoors, a square box surrounded by endless spirals of razor wire, topped by spools of more razor wire. The fence is 15 feet tall.
“What have you gotten us into?” Fred whispers in my ear.
A camera is perched above our heads in the corner. The next buzzer goes off, and the second heavy metal door releases in front of us. These contained rooms are called ‘Sally Ports,’ they are holding tanks. When the coast is clear, we get to access the next area. Going into Sally Port 3, I keep looking behind me for an exit, but there isn’t one.
We enter a dark, grey room and encounter several solemn guards. There are no windows and the air is stale. A guard waves us over and tells our rights, obligations and final warnings.
“It’s our obligation to tell you, that you could be held hostage inside this prison. Don’t touch an inmate, stay together and always have a guard with you from this point on.”
Another guard escorts us to Sally Port 11. “Clank,” the sound echoes against the walls. The door opens and we go in. It’s a long wait this time. I feel cold. A buzzer sounds and I’m startled. Then the “CLANK,” and we step out into a large corridor. Droves of inmates quietly walk by in large groups. My feelings are a mixture of excitement and fear.
The guard leads us down the hall and abruptly takes a right. A classroom is surrounded entirely by glass. We enter it and feel like fish in a fishbowl. We have no idea how many students will be showing up.
The door opens. A guard walks in, followed by the inmates, 21 in all. They file in and sit at long horizontal tables filling the classroom. The women are subdued. They wear solid orange tops and pants. Looking around the room my curiosity is peaked, why are they are here? Their faces are hard, some have tattoos down their arms.
Lauri, Jonathan and Fred spend the first hour testing each student’s reading level while I mark the scores in my ledger. Their reading levels hover around second grade, with a couple women whose spike to fifth grade level.
Next, we hand out the Nardagani Sound Maps, a blank piece of paper and special prison-issue rubber pens, which are floppy, to prevent the inmates from styling them into shanks. We also hand out nametags.
A woman with a large scar down her neck asks, “Do you want me to put my prison number on this nametag?”
“No, your first name please.”
“We don’t get to use our first names here. Thank you.”
“Let’s get started. Hi, I’m Narda. I created Nardagani. It’s based on the Japanese way of learning to read. It’s fun, you’ll see.”
Within an hour the inmates begin to loosen up. A woman missing her front teeth speaks up, “This is fun. I never saw letters this way before.”
I feel the energy in the room shift and my shoulders release. A women in the back of the class raises her hand, “Are we allowed to take these materials back to our cells?” I’m surprised to see she looks like a friend back home, but in an orange jumpsuit.
“Yes, you are.”
The class continues for a full two hours. The women absorb the information like sponges. As we say goodbye, a big, sassy, blond woman named Veronica puts her hand up to give me a high-five. I go to meet her hand with mine when Fred grabs my arm, “No touching, sorry Veronica, nice try though.”
On the second day of class, the inmates file into the fishbowl, chattering excitedly.
“I shared what I learned with my cellmates yesterday.”
“We showed our friends at the dining hall, they loved the “Shhh” symbol.”
Wow, this is really stimulating for them.
We had decided to begin this day with our Nardagani Bingo Game. How will these hardened criminals react? Will they like it? Lauri, Jonathan and Fred hand out the Bingo cards and chips while I organize the corresponding Flash Cards we use to review the sounds and symbols as we play. To our delight, they whoop with enthusiasm.
By the end of this second class, we have taught them the entire program. They are reading our coded practice books with ease.
When the last Sally Port closes and we depart the prison, the air is electric with our enthusiasm to debrief at a local coffee shop.
Lauri starts, “Nardagani is so easy, we’re done teaching and still have another day of the pilot program. What do we do now?”
“We could spend tomorrow working with the inmates on how to best tutor Nardagani.” Jonathan pipes in. “They sure like teaching their friends.”
The next day, when the students filed in, giggling and gushing about sharing our program, they are thrilled to learn we will spend the class time teaching them to tutor Nardagani.
“My friend Clara will be stoked, she’s envious that I get to be here in this refreshing class, a departure from my dark, boring life in prison.”
We teach them to teach, and then wrap up the third class by testing each inmate’s reading level. The testing is with a standardized method, without Nardagani symbols. Everyone has improved her reading by at least two grade levels in this six-hour pilot program.
A few days after my return from prison I get a call.
“Hi, my name is Carol Fitzgerald, I’m the education director at the Snake River Correctional Center in Ontario Oregon. I’d like to conduct a pilot program. We will purchase your kits, go through the instructional materials you provide and let you know how it goes.”
I mail Carol two Instructor Kits and five student kits. Two months later she calls me.
“You need to get out here and see what’s happening.”
Driving into the prison feels similar to the Idaho prison, razor wire surrounding the facility. Walking toward the main entrance I see a tall woman holding a bunch of paperwork, she sees me and begins jumping up and down, one of the files falls to the ground. Before I can pick up the file, she is hugging me; tears are streaming down her face.
“It’s working, it’s working. Nothing has ever worked for us before. Come, the Nardagani tutors want to meet you.”
Carol leads me through all the formalities, visitor check-in, rights, obligations and warnings. We go through the many Sally Ports and arrive in a large hallway at the center of the prison. This is the largest men’s prison in Oregon. Groups of male inmates walk by, in denim shirts and jeans.
I say to Carol, “Now I understand why you told me not to wear denim.”
We enter a large classroom; it has a bank of desktop computers in one area, tables and chairs in another. We sit. “There are five Nardagani tutors, they should be here shortly. They are very excited to meet you.”
The door opens and five men walk in smiling.
“I am happy to introduce our Nardagani tutors to you.” They stand there, saying “hello, so nice to meet you. Thank you for coming.”
I’m startled, “but you are all in denim. I don’t understand.”
Carol responds, “Oh, you told me that probably inmates could teach each other to read?”
Holly molly, the tutors are inmates!