How Comic Books Help Some Colorado Inmates Gain New Skills

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Photo: LEAD With Comics class at the Boulder County Jail
Pop Culture Classroom instructors Toby Nitschke (left) and Dion Harris (right) hold open discussions during a LEAD With Comics class at the Boulder County Jail.

Five men, most with tattoos on their arms and necks, sit around folding tables at the Boulder County Jail. They have graphic novels and sketches spread out in front of them.

One of the instructors calls on Aaron and asks the 24-year-old to share his writing assignment.

"Aaron, ignore my comments," the instructor says. "Just read it straight. Read it in whatever voice you want."

Aaron, who asked that we not use his last name, is enrolled in LEAD With Comics -- a six-week class created by the Denver nonprofit Pop Culture Classroom. LEAD stands for Literacy Education in Adult Detention, and it's a relatively new program at the Boulder County Jail. Male and female inmates enrolled in the program work to improve their literacy skills by reading and analyzing graphic novels. They also learn to create their own comics and illustrate them.

Right now, Aaron has written his story but hasn't illustrated it yet. He calls it "Super Hero."

"Tenuki was born in a city full of crime," he tells his classmates. "At the age of eight, he lost his family in a car accident. Instead of being an orphan, Tenuki chose the life of a criminal. He started a group of kids that would cause chaos in the city."

Aaron has been in the Boulder County Jail for about five months on multiple charges, including that he attempted to influence an officer. He doesn't like to talk about his past. He just says he used to be a very angry person. CPR News agreed to only use his first name because Aaron is trying to move away from any gang affiliation, and that can be difficult.

He' much more open about his love for comics and that's why signed up for LEAD With Comics.

"I'm trying to use this program and the class to just let things go and move forward in a positive way," Aaron says.

'An In-Road To Literacy'

Photo: LEAD With Comics jail program, Pop Culture Classroom's Illya Kowalchuk
Pop Culture Classroom director of education Illya Kowalchuk.

Illya Kowalchuk, the director of education at Pop Culture Classroom, says he got the idea for the program after hearing a public radio story.

"Several years ago, I heard a piece talking about how, with the economic collapse, states and counties were cutting prison education," Kowalchuk says. "To me, that seemed completely counter-intuitive to what the inmates would need to be rehabilitated."

Kowalchuk believes comics and graphic novels are an easy way for inmates to get into literature.

"The pictures and the words work together in such a way that the readers are much more likely to want to jump in, as opposed to looking at a 200-, 300-page novel with no picture," he says.

A $26,000 grant awarded last January by the Arts Affinity Group, an arts-dedicated giving division of the Denver Foundation, made LEAD With Comics possible.

Pop Culture Classroom initially approached the Denver County Jail. That partnership didn't work out. In an email, a spokesperson from the Denver Sheriff Department said they are committed to programs that help inmates re-enter their communities after they're released.

"The programs [that are already in place] are evidence-based, designed for large facilities and have a track record for success," the spokesperson said. "After careful consideration, we decided not to progress with the Pop Culture Classroom program."

LEAD With Comics launched at the Boulder County Jail last summer. It's one of more than 60 programs offered there. Inmates can take classes ranging from yoga to vocational training. Sgt. Lydia Mitchell, with the jail, says she hopes these classes will help inmates get on the right path.

"We have to do something in here," Mitchell says. "We have to change the cycle, we have to change the thought process. And if we don't make the attempts here, we can almost guarantee that they'll victimize again."

The Boulder County Jail reports that just over 40 percent of inmates released between 2012 and 2014 returned to jail -- this could be on a technical parol violation or they commit another crime.

Photo: LEAD With Comics class at the Boulder County Jail feature image
Inmates in the LEAD With Comics program at the Boulder County Jail learn art and literacy skills.

Do These Programs Work?

Stefan LoBuglio works with the Council of State Governments' Justice Center, a national nonprofit that researches best practices for public policy. He analyzes what does and doesn't work for correctional programs. LoBuglio says inmates who chose on their own to enroll in programs like LEAD with Comics are the least likely to re-offend.

"The most motivated individuals will be savvy enough to enroll in the program and often times they're the ones least at risk" LoBuglio says.

That doesn't mean these programs aren't important, he explains.

"Running a correctional facility is a very challenging enterprise -- it's like a mini city," he says. "[Programming like this] adds to an overall humanness of the institution that's hosting these type of programs."

Toby Nitschke, who's one of Lead With Comics instructors, says he's seen how the program can affect inmates.

"I think the art practice [of this class] can be very focusing," Nischke says. "It can be their zen activity. It involves the hands. It involves creation. And there's a whole mental process of them trying to do it because it's something new."

One Inmate's Story

Aaron, who just wrapped up LEAD With Comics, says the program has been an escape from life in jail. For his comic book character, Tenuki, time behind bars has been transformative.

"Once Tenuki landed in prison, being the bad guy wasn't something he felt like being anymore," Aaron reads from his story. "So he used the time in a positive way. Tenuki would exercise, meditate and help others with what he could."

Tenuki, in Aaron's comic, becomes a librarian after he's released. He lives a quiet life by day, but at night, masked and barring a symbol on his chest, Tenuki fights crime.

In the real world, Aaron has more than two years left to serve. He says, when he's released, he wants to mirror Tenuki's transformation and go to college.

Meanwhile, Boulder County Jail says it plans to continue offering the comic book program to its inmates. And Pop Culture Classroom hopes to take LEAD With Comics statewide, starting with Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado.