The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton is the oldest continuously operating prison in America. Constructed in 1831, this ornate Egyptian-style institution has been visited by Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville as an example of modern prison reform. Today, men are still residing in these original cells.

New Jersey State Prison is now a maximum security prison for inmates serving long sentences. Half of the prisoners are convicted of murder, the average sentence is 50 years, and 75% of the inmates are illiterate.

Yet many of these same men are achieving a measure of hope, a sense of personal freedom: they are finally learning how to read.

HOW DO YOU SPELL MURDER? chronicles a year in the life of these illiterate prisoners and explores the powerful connection between illiteracy and crime.

Inside America’s Prisons, 70% of Inmates Cannot Read or Write

America's prisons are full of poorly educated men and women who come from deteriorating urban neighborhoods with failing public school systems. Almost three-fourths of those incarcerated have not graduated from high school and a staggering 70 percent are functionally illiterate and read below a fourth grade level. At New Jersey State Prison the illiteracy rate is even higher.

As the prison population in America has now reached over two million — the largest of any country in the world — and inmates are facing tougher mandatory sentences, men and women locked up without the ability to even read the newspaper are condemned to a prison within a prison.

How Do You Spell Murder

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The United States spends $40 billion annually on incarceration and less than two percent of that on education for prisoners. Recognizing the staggering rate of illiteracy and the lack of funding, inmates at New Jersey State Prison created their own literacy program called L.I.F.E. (Learning Is For Everyone). To fight the stigma attached to illiteracy, inmates volunteer to teach other inmates to read in private one-on-one tutoring sessions. Managed by the inmates themselves with support of community volunteers, the L.I.F.E.. Program has helped men achieve their personal goals of learning to read, writing letters home or receiving their GED certificate.

Each inmate tutor becomes a certified Literacy Volunteer of America and learns the skills needed to teach literacy to adults. Years of failure in school has left many scars and the process of teaching adults to read can be a lengthy one but these men now value the opportunity to learn.

Now, after seventeen years, the L.I.F.E.. program has 46 tutors and has taught 236 men how to read, or write letters home. And 52 inmates have received their GED.

Prisons Are Overpopulated with Learning-Disabled Inmates

In addition, a disproportionately high number of inmates have learning disabilities, most commonly dyslexia. The U.S. prison population has a four-times greater number of learning-disabled inmates than the general public. The L.I.F.E.. managers recognized this need as well and sought the assistance of community volunteers such as ABC Literacy Resources to train the inmate tutors with these specialized skills.

HOW DO YOU SPELL MURDER? profiles several of these student-tutor teams working together. The prisoners recount years of humiliation in the public school system, where they were either held back repeatedly or promoted without adequate preparation. Many have undiagnosed learning disorders. Almost all are dropouts. Their years of frustration and anger were brought to unyielding conclusions at criminal trials where they could barely grasp the legal documents and procedures that determined their fates.

The film profiles one such student-tutor team from their first session through to a year later when the student can read. Inmate tutor Sammy recounts that he was functionally illiterate when he entered prison. While in prison he taught himself to read and is now a poet as well as a tutor.

Nathaniel, his student, shares his school history to reveal he was held back in the second grade five times before he dropped out of school in the eighth grade. During the year’s filming, Sammy discovers that Nathaniel has an undiagnosed learning disability which finally explains his school failures. And most unexpectedly, at the end of the year, Nathaniel is informed that The New Jersey Appellate Court reversed his two murder convictions and ordered that he receive a new trial. The Office of the Public Defender argues that Nathaniel's confession was inadmissible based in part on his illiteracy. Nathaniel signed a confession that he could not read. His new trial is still pending at this time.

Poetry Workshop Rehabilitates The Mind

HOW DO YOU SPELL MURDER? visits an inmate poetry workshop called Prose and Cons. These inmates demonstrate that the desire for education goes beyond basic literacy to the human need to communicate and express themselves. Operated under the supervision of a community volunteer, the workshop offers moving testimony to the power of the written word.

One inmate, Desi, explains his motivation for writing poetry:

"You have basically only two choices in here: either you're going to try to fight against this onslaught of despair or surrender to its madness and escape into a world where everything is cold and gray. ... I think the more I express myself, the more I have grown as a person. Because before I was just an angry youth. I wasn’t trying to get my point across through words."

Studies have shown the direct correlation between education and reduced recidivism. One study by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, suggests that illiteracy is a primary cause of crime. This debate has been going on for some time. HOW DO YOU SPELL MURDER? adds the personal stories of those men who are not just the statistics of all these reports but people with hope for changing their lives.


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