April 09, 2020
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A new program teaches female inmates to tell their own stories

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Sarah Lemery received her high school equivalency diploma after getting support from a jail program. Penobscot Count Jail has started a new pilot program to help female clients learn to read, get their high school diplomas, or parenting classes.

BANGOR, Maine — For high school dropout Sarah Lemery, who recently finished a 98-day sentence in the county lockup for a drug conviction, finding a reading and writing tutor behind bars changed her life.

Last Wednesday, the 34-year-old, pregnant with her fourth child, walked down the aisle at the Peakes Auditorium at Bangor High School in a graduation gown and received her high school equivalency diploma.

“When you’re a drug addict, you always feel like a failure,” Lemery said just before the ceremony. “I always felt like I would fail it.”

She took the test to get her diploma on April 18, the day before being released from Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, and she cried when she heard she passed with a good score.

Lemery took part in a new program at the jail designed to teach female inmates how to read and get a high school equivalency diploma, and how to be a parent.

The pilot program from Riverside Adult Education Partnership, the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, and Literacy Volunteers of Bangor lets female inmates choose from a variety of free classes.

Similar literacy and life skill programs are available in prison, but the effort to educate female inmates is a first for the county jail.

“What we’re finding is these are bright and educated women,” said Matt Tardie, director of Riverside, which provides adult education classes in Orono, Old Town and Hampden. “What we’re hoping to accomplish is to build relationships, and we hope those relationships will continue when they leave that setting.”

The women can get help with completing high school and preparing for college, child development and parenting, or one-on-one tutoring in reading and writing.

Female inmates were selected for the pilot program because they are the fastest growing population at the jail, and many are mothers, Whittle said.

“One of the best ways of helping children in a school system is to help their parents,” Tardie said. “If you help a parent, you help improve that parent’s ability to help their children.”

About 50 women have taken advantage of the new program since the pilot started at the end of January, with 30 or so enrolling in the writing class.

Lemery, who dropped out of school when she became pregnant at age 16, worked with tutor Eileen McAvoy from Literacy Volunteers for several weeks in a row.

“It gave you more self-confidence, and makes you have more self-worth,” Lemery said. “To know you are somebody in this world, even though we messed up.”

Part of the UMaine portion of the program includes tracking the numbers, specifically recidivism.

As they prepare to leave jail, the women are given information about how to connect with Riverside and Literacy Volunteers, as well as resources for domestic violence and sexual assault, addiction, and children with special needs.

“I had things set up for when I got out,” Lemery said, sitting outside Wellspring, where she is getting support to stay off drugs. “Having a plan in place is one of the most important things. That has been my mistake in the past and I fell right back into the same [situation].

“It’s hard to get out and know you’re going to fail,” she said. “If you don’t have a plan, it’s hard when you walk out those doors.”

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