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Unique Prison Program Uses Comics to Improve Literacy

Pop Culture Classroom kicks off a new literacy program at the Sterling Correctional Facility on Saturday. (Stephanie Wolf/Colorado Public Radio)
Pop Culture Classroom kicks off a new literacy program at the Sterling Correctional Facility on Saturday. (Stephanie Wolf/Colorado Public Radio)
May 13, 2016

DENVER - If you've been anywhere near downtown during Denver's Comic Con, you've probably seen swarms of people dressed up as their favorite comic book characters. But you may not know that the event's parent organization, Pop Culture Classroom, also brings literacy programs to prisons across the state. The group will kick off a new workshop Saturday at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

Illya Kowalchuk, Pop Culture Classroom's director of education, said comics can help lower barriers to learning.

"Over 60 percent of people that are in the correctional system are functionally illiterate, which means they can't read above a fourth-grade level," he said. "In addition to reducing that intimidation level, they're just cool, right? Like, comics are just cool and fun to read."

He said people in these programs start by reading graphic novels and learning how stories are told through text and artwork. Professional artists then coach the students as they create their own six-panel comic strip based on personal experiences.

Kowalchuk said the program gives many behind bars a chance to tell their own stories for the first time. He said participants are encouraged to write a story focusing on personal transformation, based on real-life events, through metaphor or something they hope to see happen in the future.

"The stories that the inmates will write about are remarkably sensitive and come from the heart in such a way that exhibits a great deal of vulnerability on their part," he said. "It's been wonderful to see them open up in that regard."

Kowalchuk said research has shown people in prison who take literacy classes have a 16 percent recidivism rate, while those who don't are more than four times more likely to end up in jail again. Comic strips and graphic novels created through the program will be featured in a special exhibit at this year's Comic Con in June.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO