Speechcraft Participants Thrive in County Jail

How Toastmasters in New York saw
a need and went about fulfilling it.

By Desire Vail, CTM

Caption: Members of the Speechcraft program at the New York Livingston County Jail pose with representatives of Wine Country Toastmasters Desi Vail, CTM, and Lash LaRue, CC (far right)

On Thursday afternoons, two or three Toastmasters enter the main door of the Livingston County Jail at 4 Court Street in Geneseo, New York. They walk into a small lobby and face a one-way mirror, where a security guard identifies them and opens a heavy ­sliding door. The guard, determining they are “clean,” opens a second heavy sliding door that also clangs shut behind them. The Toastmasters turn right, pass through two smaller secure doors and find themselves in the visitors’ room, where they prepare to present their weekly series of abbreviated Speechcraft programs to inmates.

The project is intended to help inmates develop their public speaking abilities before they reenter their communities. Many of the men in the program have been convicted on drug or alcohol-related charges with an average incarceration of eight to nine months.

The moving force behind this project is Robert (Bob) Babcock, ATMB, president of the Wine Country Toastmasters in nearby Bath, New York. “I saw a need and went about fulfilling it,” says Babcock, who is a part-time adult education instructor at the jail and a retired teacher from the New York school system. “My job in the jail showed me that the men were not only in need of high-school educations, but lacked the communication and leadership skills to apply for a job, to express an opinion or to develop a more purposeful vocabulary.” Bob asked his fellow club members if they would be interested in providing a Speechcraft program in the Livingston County Jail, and the members agreed. 

                    “Many of our folks housed in this building are good people that made bad choices.”

Enhancing the inmates’ ability to communicate is a goal of Livingston County Sheriff John M. York and jail superintendent Major James Rose. They agreed this need was one that could be met by Toastmasters. “Many of our folks housed in this building are good people that made bad choices,“ says Major Rose, whose support makes the program possible.

The room where the Toastmasters greet the inmates is stark. It is about 20 feet by 20 feet with a single boarded window. The brick walls are painted yellow and security cameras keep watch at each corner of the ceiling. Along with the view from the cameras, the guard in the bubble can look directly into the room. Half a dozen long tables span the length of the space; along the length of the tables are a series of vertical plexiglass windows that separate the inmates from the visitors. Vertical boards beneath the tables prohibit the exchange of contraband.

When the Wine Country club members enter, the inmates, dressed in their orange or brown jump suits, are already seated at these tables, some clustered in the back, all facing forward. The Toastmasters greet and join them. A small desk where the corrections officer sits when he’s watching visitors becomes the lectern for the Speechcraft participants.

Edwin (Lash) LaRue, CC, member of the Wine Country Toastmasters, says, “I didn’t know what to expect, because I’d never been to jail, never knew what it was like, never knew what the inmates were like. I was pleasantly surprised, because I found the guys to be likable sort of guys. Like the Major said, they’d just made bad decisions, and they’re in there to pay for the bad decisions they’d made.”

Terry Bilancio, DTM, another Wine Country Toastmaster, was impressed by the high quality of the men who were participating in the project. “I didn’t expect people as well-read, well-educated and sophisticated as they were. I didn’t expect the openness that we found in what they were willing to share about themselves in their presentations.”

The first Speechcraft program ran for four weeks and was considered a success by all participants. Eight inmates were involved, and seven completed the sessions. The Toastmasters presented the fundamentals of public speaking, and the speechcraft participants practiced what they learned.

“They gained confidence in all aspects of communication,“ says Babcock, “including written and impromptu speaking, spontaneous but thoughtful responses to current events, body language, listening and evaluation skills. Most importantly, they learned respect for themselves.“

The project culminated in a ceremony in the jail where the seven inmate participants were awarded certificates. In the second session, which included seven participants, the jail awarded six certificates. The third program has now started and involves eleven inmates.

                    “Even though we’re incarcerated, it’s getting us ready for our release. We can sharpen
                     our speaking skills for employment and business opportunities.”

“The inmates learned some of the formalities of public speaking,” says Bilancio. “Some of them who had obviously not had the experience of speaking in front of groups were able to do it, and start to experience the positive benefits of getting up in front of people and speaking, and the self-esteem that comes by being successful when communicating in a group.”

“They learned to express themselves a little bit more clearly,“ says LaRue, “a little bit more easily, to lose that trepidation about getting up and talking in front of people. Another thing they got out of the program was a lot of camaraderie that they don’t get in a regular jail situation. It was like you would get from an ordinary meeting someplace, making friends, and in some ways I feel that I have made some friends.”

Plans for the future, Babcock says, are “to continue the program for as long as they need it, as long as they want it. So far, everything’s been very positive. Actually, they’ve been some of the best Toastmasters meetings I’ve ever been to in my life. The men are spirited and honest, and they do the Speechcraft jobs they’re asked to do. They’re good.”

“The Speechcraft program has given me a real positive attitude here in this jail environment,” says John Dannee, who has been in the program since the beginning in May 2006, and is now president of the group. “Without question it has helped me to sharpen my speaking skills, and also my leadership skills. Even though we’re incarcerated, it’s getting us ready for our release. We can sharpen our speaking skills for employment and business opportunities.” 

                    “The Speechcraft program has given me a real positive
                    attitude here in this jail environment.”

“I really enjoyed the chance to stand up and talk in front of everybody,“ says Vinnie Brock, an inmate participant, “and I’m glad that the Wine Country Toastmasters club came into the jail and gave us the opportunity to do that. It’s made me more aware of my abilities to speak in front of a group of people, and being a contractor, it’s helped a lot. Normally I have to speak in front of two or three people at the same time when they want their roof done, so it’s helped quite a bit to practice speaking with everybody. I really appreciate the opportunity to do that.”

“As we were working in the kitchen,“ says John Dannee, “all we talked about was food and what’s for dinner, but now we talk about things of a lot more value, such as current events, politics, sports, people’s backgrounds – where they came from, how they got here and what they’re going to do when they get out.

“This Speechcraft program brings people into a group where they can open up a little bit, and it’s a step into a higher quality of inmates. A lot of them have college degrees but have gotten themselves into a tough situation. Now they’re working on some of the positives, and sharing that – we all are sharing things with the other inmates. You don’t do it much, when you’re in jail or prison, because you take more of a defensive posture. You don’t let people in too much.

“I think it’s a wonderful program, and I think that if any jail or prison has the opportunity to have this, [they] should, by all means, go ahead with it.”

John plans to join the Wine Country Toastmasters club when his jail sentence is completed. 

Desire Vail, CTM, is vice president education in Wine Country Toastmasters Club in Bath, New York, and a participant in the Livingston County Jail Speechcraft project. Contact her at vail@empacc.net. 

Helping Inmates Communicate 

Speaking and leadership skills prove popular with inmates at the California Institute for Women.

By Laurie Rathbun

Bob Freel of Menifee, California, does volunteer work that few others are willing to do. One evening a week, he goes to the California Institute for Women near Corona and teaches leadership and communication skills to inmates who belong to a Toastmasters club in the prison.

Freel, 60, is a Distinguished Toastmaster and started volunteering in 2003 when he became an area governor of six clubs in District 12. “It was a culture shock,” he said, remembering his first visit to the prison. “I was one of those people who thought ‘lock them up and throw away the key.’”

He views the inmates now as human beings who have made mistakes. “I think a lot of them have paid their debt and deserve a second chance,” he said. In fact, he has written to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to help parole some of the inmates.

Darrell Zeller, a former Toastmasters’ District 12 Governor, founded the club in 2002. Freel helps Zeller and another Toastmaster, Randy Amelino, run it. Freel said he’s known as “the Professor” because he teaches the inmates how to speak and build their confidence.

The club meets on Thursday nights in two sessions and has more than 40 members. It costs the inmates about $65 to become members; most are determined to stay in the program and complete the Competent Communication manual. Freel said that 80 to 90 percent of participants complete the manual and advance to another level.

Since July, five club members have earned Competent Leader or Competent Communicator awards. “We are all very proud of them,” Freel said. 

                    “I think a lot of them have paid their debt and deserve a second chance.” – BOB FREEL, DTM

Most of the club’s inmates are serving life sentences. “I have worked with some women who have been very prominent in the newspapers in the last 40 years,” Freel said. He can’t disclose their names due to confidentially rules.

Freel has never felt that he was in physical danger from the inmates. He had to go through non-custodial training to volunteer and follows the same rules and regulations as the prison guards.

He commented that it’s hard to get other Toastmasters to volunteer with the prisoners because they’re afraid, which he understands. “It’s a different environment,” he said. “You get tested. You have to earn their respect.”

Freel became involved with Toastmasters about 11 years ago when he took a Dale Carnegie management and leadership training course through his job. “As part of every meeting, you got up and gave a short talk for one to two minutes,” he said. He did well and wanted to improve his speaking skills so his instructor recommended that he join Toastmasters. He joined in 1995.

Freel is a member of five clubs, and attends 10 to 12 meetings each month in various Southern California cities. He’s semi-retired and works one day a week for the United States Postal Service as a rural route carrier.

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News, of Temecula, California, Feb. 9, 2007