Mexican government starts program to help U.S. inmates

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 18, 2000

SACRAMENTO — The Mexican government and California Department of Corrections are starting a first-in-the-nation program to teach basic reading and writing skills to Mexican inmates. 

Mexico hopes to expand the program statewide and to other states with large numbers of Mexican inmates, most likely Texas and Illinois, said Jose Campillo Garcia, Mexican consul general for Northern California. 

Nearly 19,000 Mexican nationals are imprisoned in California. All but 1,500 face likely deportation proceedings upon their release. 

Many are poorly educated laborers who may never have learned to read and write in Spanish, let alone English, Campillo Garcia said. 

“They barely know how to sign their name, and some can’t even do that,” said Lilia Valesquez, a San Diego attorney who specializes in immigration law. 

Without those skills, it’s difficult to take part in educational and vocational programs that can cut sentences in half for those convicted of nonviolent crimes. Those convicted of violent crimes can reduce their sentences 15 percent. 

More important than that, without skills they have less chance of improving their lot after their release, Campillo Garcia said. 

“One way or another, they are going to reintegrate into society,” he said. “The best thing to do is get them educated and have valuable citizens in either country.” 

California prisons offer English-as-a-second-language programs as well as literacy programs in English. However, it is often more difficult to teach English to someone who can’t read or write in their native language and has no grasp of grammer or sentence structure, said Raul Romero, who oversees the Correction Department’s education programs. 

The prison program is similar to the “each one teach one” Laubach Literacy method widely used in the United States. 

Volunteer inmate tutors will be trained to use self-teaching Spanish-language books and workbooks that the National Institute of Education for Adults has employed in literacy programs throughout Mexico for more than 20 years. The program is so widespread it is advertised on milk cartons. 

Program coordinators have been trained in seven of California’s 33 prisons, including Folsom, Ione, Jamestown, Sacramento, Stockton, Susanville and Tracy. 

The consulate’s staff is helping line up participants. At High Desert State Prison in Susanville, for instance, three inmates had signed up before Mexican officials convinced another 35 to apply. 

At that rate, Campillo Garcia estimates 250 to 300 inmates will participate. 

They will be tested next month to determine their skill level, then given books ranging in difficulty from the “See Spot Run” level to basic texts on mathematics, history and social science. 

The Mexican government is covering the cost of materials, training and testing. 

Though the program is aimed at Mexican citizens, other Spanish-speaking inmates can participate. All told, more than 29,000 of California’s 162,500 inmates hail from other countries. 

Though the prisons have bilingual translators, inmates without basic communications skills are far more vulnerable, said immigration lawyer Valesquez. 

“You have the fear factor of not knowing what the hell is going on,” she said. “The chances are your rights may be violated, and you may not have access to an outside attorney.” 

They have difficulty understanding orders, communicating with other inmates, explaining an illness or understanding their treatment, added Campillo Garcia. 

Valesquez, a legal consultant to the Mexican government, thinks consulate and prison officials will have to work hard to make the program a success. 

“People need to be convinced they should take advantage of it,” she said. “If you’re convinced that you’re a farmworker and you’re going to die a farmworker, you’re going to think, ’Why bother?”’ 

Corrections’ Romero said offering the materials in Spanish seems a good first step, judging from inmates’ initial reaction. 

“To them it’s like being home again,” Romero said. “It all relates them back to their native tongue — they really appreciate it.” 


On the Net: 

Learn more about the Mexican literacy program (in Spanish) at www.ainternacinea.sep.gob.mx 

For more on the California Department of Corrections see http://www.cdc.state.ca.us/