UMaine education professors working behind bars with female inmates at Penobscot County Jail

University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, Riverside Adult Education Partnership and Literacy Volunteers of Bangor have teamed up to provide much-needed educational opportunities for female inmates at Penobscot County Jail.

The pilot program called “What Now? What’s Next?” lets the women choose from a menu of services, ranging from help with completing high school and preparing for college, to child development and parenting classes, to one-on-one tutoring in reading and writing. It’s the result of nearly a year’s worth of planning by the three organizations.

“This all started after I had a conversation with Sheriff Troy Morton about his need to provide more educational services inside the jail,” says Matt Tardie, director of the Riverside Adult Education Partnership, which provides academic, personal enrichment and vocational skills courses at schools in the Orono, Old Town and Hampden school districts.

“I approached Literacy Volunteers to see if we could partner on something, because I was familiar with the great work they do, and they brought in the College of Education and Human Development,” Tardie says.

Literacy Volunteers of Bangor provides free English language tutoring to about 300 adults in the Bangor area. The nonprofit has a longstanding working relationship with the college, says executive director Mary Marin Lyon.

“A more literate community is one that is stronger, safer and more vibrant,” Lyon says. “With 75 percent of state prison inmates lacking a high school diploma or classified as low literate, we know that this work is another way we can have a positive effect on our community.”

One of the services offered through “What Now? What’s Next?” is a writing group, led by University of Maine literacy professors Dee Nichols and Susan Bennett-Armistead. To date about 30 women have participated in the group, which, in addition to teaching writing skills, allows them to tell their personal stories.

“Literacy can expand opportunities,” Bennett-Armistead says. “It’s a powerful motivator to know that they can share their stories and that their stories have value.”

Nichols says the pilot program is a quintessential example of a land grant university’s service mission.

“The community has a need, they turn to the university, and the university helps the community solve the need,” Nichols says.

Other services offered by the UMaine team include child development and parenting classes, which are provided by Associate Professor of Education Sid Mitchell and doctoral student Janet Nichols.

“We teach them what normal childhood development looks like,” Mitchell says. “For example, a lot of them know that it’s normal for a baby to cry, but they need that validated and reinforced. So, that’s what we help them with, just learning how children develop and how understanding that can make them better parents.”

Rachel Sirois, a junior pursuing a teaching degree, also is working on the project, which will be a focus of her honors thesis.

Now that the pilot program is underway, the team is looking at how to help the women once they move on from the jail. Most of the inmates housed at Penobscot County Jail are pre-trial, so there’s a good deal of turnover. They have started providing them with a list of resources for re-entry, including information on how to access services through Riverside Adult Education and Literacy Volunteers on the outside, as well as services for domestic violence and sexual assault, addiction, and children with special needs.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751,