An experimental educational program at the District's Lorton Reformatory was endorsed yesterday by Barbara Bush, the vice president's wife, who said she hoped it could become a model for a broader federal program to fight illiteracy among prisoners and train them for jobs.
"I'm convinced it's the only answer," said Bush after a 45-minute tour of classes at Lorton's Occoquan I and II facilities. While the Lorton program is only beginning, "we have high hopes" for its success, she said.
Bush, who has been a strong advocate of campaigns to promote literacy, visited Lorton for the first time with Mayor Marion Barry and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District.
Specter succeeded two years ago in getting federal funding for the pilot project, intended to train inmates for jobs when they are released so they will not return to criminal activities.
Among the classes Bush visited was a computer-repair training class with 15 student inmates.
Kim Thompson, who said he was one of the first two students in the class, said in an interview that he was optimistic the training would help him when he is released. At the same time, he expressed concerns that employers would prefer people with the same amount of training and without a criminal record.
"It's a hard society. They'll still see my record," he said.
After the course, which started in May and takes about 14 weeks to complete, Thompson said no other classes will be available for him to go beyond the entry-level skills he is learning. "I'll just be warehoused," he said.
After entering that classroom, where reporters had waited while the bulk of the tour took place, Barry and Specter started interviewing the inmates about what they thought of the program as television cameras recorded the event.
Leonard Boyd, 34, a 1969 graduate of Spingarn High School, told the mayor he is in on a charge of bank robbery and has 2 1/2 more years to serve. The $16,000-a-year salary he has been told he can earn as a computer technician as a result of the training would be enough to support his wife and two children, 15 and 5, he said.
"Washington is hard on anyone growing up black. About everyone is professional," Boyd said later, after the entourage moved on. The menial labor available is "not very appealing to most people. This the training program will help."
In the next room, a small social studies class was studying the geography of Africa, part of basic education aimed at helping inmates get their high school equivalency degrees. Asked how many of the other inmates would sign up if it would result in a good job when they were released, some responded that "all of them" would