UI lecturer brings his 'wealth of information' to help educate inmates

UI lecturer brings his 'wealth of information' to help educate inmates

DANVILLE CORRECTIONAL CENTER — About 20 young men dressed in blue sit in a classroom inside this medium security prison.

Not one chatters, wiggles, giggles, kicks his desk or appears distracted.

An inmate reads slowly from a book in a Hispanic accent.

"Hand-ker-chief?" he asks uncertainly.

The instructor calls out to help a student with another word, explaining that the "e" at the end is silent.

Another inmate tries to work out how to pronounce "desperate" but first comes up with "disappeared."

Ramon Cabrales, an inmate himself, gently corrects, using the methods he has learned from volunteers who are educators at the University of Illinois.

Hugh Bishop, a UI lecturer in English as a second language, was named Danville Correctional Center Volunteer of the Year for his work leading this class — and the Language Partners program in the Education Justice Project at the prison.

Part of the UI's public service outreach, the Education Justice Project offers education programs to students incarcerated at Danville, hosts activities for their family members in Chicago and produces scholarship about the work.

The award states: "Mr. Bishop is described as a firm but fair teacher. He believes the structure of the classroom requires excellence at every level. He takes advice from the inmates and peer instructors in the development of future lessons. He cares deeply that each inmate that is given the opportunity to learn (English as a second language) in his classroom is equipped with this necessary skill."

Though Bishop works mainly on the teaching of English, the UI offers five courses, including theater and robotics, at the center.

The Language Partners program works with bilingual Hispanic inmates, some of whom may go on to professional English and bilingual teaching careers, Bishop said. One already has — in Mexico (a felony conviction makes finding a teaching job difficult in this country).

Bishop is 63 and a Scotsman; he has honed that accent to very polished British, with only a touch of a Scottish accent.

"At times I have been accused of being English (a terrible thing for a Scotsman)," he says.

Traveling even as a military child, Bishop has lived all over the world, teaching English for four decades, including in Africa, Asia, America and Europe, to diverse groups of students.

He likes to work and is a busy guy — who seems to have all the time in the world when the talk is important.

His volunteer award from the Department of Corrections notes that Bishop, as one of 75 regular ESJ volunteers at the prison, contributed 64 visits and 220 hours in 2012.

Bishop describes the inmate students as a pleasure to work with.

"They're very well-behaved," prison Chaplain Christopher Easton agrees.

"This is the best class I have all week," Bishop says, contrasting it with UI classes. "You don't see students playing on their cellphones here. These guys are motivated to learn English, to improve their lives and their families' lives.

"The teaching partners are motivated to learn to teach. These are people who are kind and considerate to each other."

Bishop also praises the teachers he has trained for their creative approach to keeping inmates interested in learning.

There's a way out for the best of them, perfecting their language skills, Bishop said.

But all inmates can have some benefit from the learning. Some of the students have become involved in literary productions, such as a "sold-out" staging of William Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

According to the Education Justice Project's 2012 annual report, compiled by Easton, in 2012 UI EJP members made up about 70 percent of nonreligious volunteer visits at Danville Correctional Center.

"This is an average of 300 hours per month (190 hours clocked in June and December; 630 hours in September) ... (and) an average of 76 visits per month by EJP group members (56 in June and December; 158 visits in September)," according to the report.

Bishop sets an example for other volunteers, Easton says.

Bishop says there are three reasons society at large benefits from teaching in a prison setting.

First, studies have shown that more education leads to less recidivism, Bishop says.

Also, families benefit by seeing a good example.

And there's an immediate benefit in that inmates who focus on education are less likely to focus on causing trouble.

The Danville prison, a sprawling center just east of town, has a capacity for nearly 2,000 inmates — male only. The average age of the population is 34, according to the center's statistics.

Bishop says many residents there have put aside their youthful mistakes and want to live peacefully in society.

Rebecca Ginsburg, the director of the Education Justice Project and an associate professor in education and landscape architecture, won the volunteer award two years in a row.

It's possible to get UI college credit, but the program does not yet lead to a degree. To enter the program, inmates must have at least 60 hours of college credit, typically earned through Danville Area Community College, Ginsburg says.

About 120 inmates are enrolled in EJP. Prison employees are "seldom present during our programs at the prison," she says.

Ginsburg says Bishop is "an unassuming and modest man who cares deeply about his students and their futures.

"Hugh has 30-plus years of teaching experience, and that means that he possesses a wealth of practical and theoretical information that have helped to shape Language Partners into a vibrant program," she says. "Hugh would never voluntarily disclose that he spent hundreds of hours at the prison last year working with the peer instructors and their students, nor that he spent about as much time back in Champaign developing teaching tools and lessons and grading papers.

"But his dedication is obvious to those who work with him, and the incarcerated peer instructors and students respect and love him."

In his own notes for the award, Bishop writes of the surprises he found: "Initially, I had the usual stereotype of prisons because like many people I had no contact with the correctional system. My ideas in this area had been nurtured by various media accounts of prisons as violent places filled with incorrigible, manipulative inmates. Anyone in prison was implicitly assumed to have these attributes."

Education is one of the highest predictors of upward social mobility; Bishop's project works to make productive workers out of the men, rather than drains on society.

"The motivation to work and learn (in the correctional center) is electric. We're training people who are going to get jobs and support their families," he says.

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