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The Bernard & Rita Bernatovich UW-La Crosse Jail Literacy Program

The UWL English department is proud to partner with the La Crosse County Jail to provide programming for inmates in our community. Our goals are to

  • cultivate a lifelong appreciation for reading and writing;
  • share strategies that can make reading and writing more meaningful;
  • encourage the reading of literature (including fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction by classic and contemporary authors);
  • provide opportunities for inmates to create and share their own writing;
  • facilitate discussions enriched by diverse inmate perspectives and experiences;
  • maintain a safe learning environment by following jail rules and procedures and by modeling positive, respectful interactions between inmates and co-facilitators.

Instructors from the department work on a strictly volunteer basis, offering sessions for women and men inmates approximately every other week throughout the academic year as well as multi-session “intensives.”

Brief History

The Jail Literacy Program (JLP) has grown from humble beginnings in 2015 into a full and ongoing partnership between the English department and the La Crosse County Jail. Since its launch in Fall 2015 with three sessions on The Great Gatsby (16 participants, 8 males and 8 females), the JLP now consists of nine rotating English department faculty offering bi-weekly sessions in poetry, short stories, and creative writing for 24 participants (12 males and 12 females) per session. We also offer summer and January “intensives” where faculty pairs facilitate four sessions in a single week on novels and other lengthier, extended materials. Additionally, the JLP has proudly participated in the La Crosse Reads program every year since its inception, providing free copies of the year’s Read to all interested participants and holding special events such as the visit of Reginald Dwayne Betts.

Reginald Dwayne Betts visits inmates in the La Crosse County Jail.

Spotlight: Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a nationally-recognized poet, memoirist, lawyer and prison reform activist who visited La Crosse in February 2017 as part of the 2017 La Crosse Reads program, in which community members read Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Incarcerated at age sixteen, Betts served eight years in prison under Maryland’s no-parole law, spending much of his time in solitary confinement due to overcrowding in the state prisons. He completed his GED in prison, graduated from community college soon after his release, and subsequently completed a four-year degree at the University of Maryland and an MFA program at Warren Wilson College simultaneously. In 2016 he graduated from Yale Law School, joined the bar in late 2017 after a much-publicized stay, and is currently completing his Ph.D. in law at Yale.

In 2017 the Jail Literacy Program was honored to welcome him as a guest speaker in the La Crosse County Jail, where he spent three hours with a group of 14 male participants, reading from his poetry and engaging the group in a lively conversation. Betts himself credits the reading of poetry and literature--specifically, Gaines’ book A Lesson Before Dying--for both his survival in prison and his success after his release. JLP participants prepared for Betts’ visit by reading two of his poems, “At the End of Life, a Secret” and “What We Know of Horses,” from Bastards of the Reagan Era (winner of the 2016 PEN New England Award in Poetry). [read poems from this collection] Media coverage of Betts’ visit to the jail: La Crosse Tribune, February 17, 2017

Comments from JLP Participants

  • “The class is amazing! Beautiful in a way that allows us, or had allowed me, an opportunity to experience a creative environment! In such a desolate place, that opportunity resonates in such a powerful way. The volunteers are all very encouraging with respect to helping us unfold and experience an insightful approach as well as making the readings fun.” (2023)
  • “The sessions that I’ve attended have impacted me a lot in the area of perception. These classes have made me realize that not everything is how it seems, and that sometimes you have to read your way through a story for you to fully understand how things unfold.” (2023)
  • The class “bring[s] light to different types of readings. It helps to show more types of books I like to read.” (2023)
  • “I enjoy when we read poems aloud and quietly then spoke about our ideas and thoughts on how we view them. I also enjoyed looking at photos and talking about our thoughts.” (2023)
  • “[This session was] a reminder that there’s something else out there, to look forward to.” (2017)
  • “The facilitators are very helpful in encouraging and keeping the conversation open. The poem selection is good. It’s very interesting to hear these poems and take from them. Applying what works and leaving the rest.” (2016)
  • “I enjoy the different perceptions that all the individuals have on each poem. It helps me see things in a different point of view.” (2016)
  • “I love poetry and think that this is the best class @ jail that helps us settle ourselves and express ourselves in a positive way. It helps us find ourselves in a positive way.” (2016)

Instructor Guidelines


  • Read and follow jail rules for volunteers. Remember: Staples and paperclips are contraband. The only permissible items to bring into the jail are folders, books, and unstapled sheets of paper.
  • Follow jail instructions for each session unless otherwise directed by jail staff.
  • Keep the walkie talkie with you at all times.
  • Arrive at least ten minutes before your session begins.
  • Literacy sessions do not count for college credit and are not cumulative. Inmates are not necessarily “students”; sessions are held in a program room not in a classroom per se.
  • Sessions may be tightly or loosely structured but should be interactive, inclusive, and accessible. Inmates have a wide range of reading abilities and interests and should be given equal opportunities to participate. For sample lessons, see planning materials from the Gatsby Pilot.
  • Inmates may have to leave the room during your session, and if you are leading a multi-session intensive, please note that inmates may not attend all sessions.
  • Inmates may not be able to complete any “homework” you assign for a variety of good reasons. Plan accordingly by ensuring that the day’s activities have flexible and varied options and expectations for participation.
  • Model positive, respectful interactions with inmates and co-facilitators. This is particularly important in a session co-led by facilitators of different genders.