Although programs of various types exist in prisons across the country, those operated by Toastmasters International have proved particularly successful. Toastmasters volunteers across the nation have taught inmates speaking, leadership and organizational skills and instilled the type of confidence that will help them when they search for a job upon release.
Prison Toastmasters organizations are supported by Toastmasters clubs on the outside, and one of the most active is in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where 25 volunteers support 15 programs in men’s and women’s correctional facilities.
“On the surface we teach people how to speak, but what we teach is much more than that. We teach them how to think critically, organize their thoughts, tap into their passions, and develop teamwork and leadership,” says Susan Tordella-Williams, a writer, speaker and activist in Massachusetts. “When I go into the maximum security prison they have no idea what teamwork is. They do everything alone. They wait for things to be done for them. Toastmasters offers regular practice to develop new ways of thinking, speaking and working together.”
Although it’s not easy to get volunteers, once people interact with inmates, they may return, because the experience is rewarding for both inmates and volunteers. “The first visit is the hardest. It’s scary,” she says. “Once they’ve done it they often come back.”
Prison programs are set up in a different way in each institution. Some prisons use funds dedicated for inmate education and recreation to purchase Toastmasters manuals and other supplies.
With help from other volunteers, Tordella-Williams published a step-by-step manual on how to create a prison Toastmasters club that is available online. The manual gives instructions on how to handle everything from conducting the meetings to understanding prison etiquette, and how to deal with sex offenders, who are at the bottom of the prison social-status totem pole. It also includes grammar guidelines to help prison members improve their English.
The manual outlines three steps to establish a prison Toastmasters program:
- Connect with a prison administrator who is interested and able to invite Toastmasters into the facility, train volunteers, and recruit inmates.
- Invite a team of two to four volunteers to mentor the program.
- Attract the interest of 10 to 20 inmates who are committed to the program and will invite friends to join.
Several weeks beforehand, Toastmasters will recruit two to 10 volunteers to produce a “Demonstration Meeting” for inmates to show and tell how the program works with a sample meeting, and to encourage people to attend and join. Once 10 to 20 members commit, a prison program can begin.
Volunteers can lead a SpeechCraft program for four, six, eight or 10 weeks to develop interest in creating a gavel club or chartered club that will meet weekly for years. SpeechCraft is a time-limited course to introduce the program to people and begin to teach skills. Whatever type of Toastmasters organization is created, however, it gives leadership opportunities and self confidence to people who live their daily lives under the control of prison guards.
While Toastmasters’ purpose is to teach speaking skills, it goes far beyond that. Above all else the organization provides support to those in the prison programs. “Most of the world has given up on us, and most of us have given up on ourselves,” said one inmate.
Toastmasters offers inmates an opportunity to have a future different from their past and to learn better communication, higher self-esteem and how to work with others.
For more information on Toastmasters, visit www.toastmasters.org
If you are already active in Toastmasters and would like to help your district start a club in prison, you can find a how-to manual at the D31 Prison Toastmasters website.