Utah Department of Corrections


This is what change looks like: An educator stands at a whiteboard helping students sound out words like "yogurt" and "target."

The teacher is Eliza Jensen and the students are inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility.

For the past decade, Jensen has worked for Central Academy, the high school operated by the South Sanpete County School District at the prison located in Gunnison, Utah.

The job has placed Jensen on the front line with others who are helping inmates prepare for a better life, one far removed from the pasts that landed them here. Her task: help inmates achieve basic literacy.

Some day that skill may help these offenders find and keep a job or rent an apartment. It may, for the first time, allow them to help their children with homework or read them a bedtime story.

"To have the most chance at success, people have to have an education," Jensen said.

An ad in the local newspaper spurred Jensen's interest in working as a teacher at the prison. Until then, she did not even know there was a high school program within the facility.

This is actually Jensen's second career. She owned and operated Country Catering for 17 years before joining the Department in 2006.

Jensen initially held two part-time jobs with the Department: teacher and secretary for Utah Correctional Industries' building trades program. While finishing a master's degree through the University of Phoenix she moved into a full-time teaching position.

Jensen has taught social studies, history, psychology, financial literacy and parenting. About two years ago, Jensen was assigned to teach reading. She runs five classes a day, with a two-hour class for students at the lowest level (Pre-K to fourth grade). The goal is to get all inmates up to at least a ninth grade level.

Jensen was initially surprised by the degree of illiteracy she encountered.

Lack of education is commonplace. So is dyslexia. Chronic substance abuse has damaged the brains of some students to the extent that learning is much more difficult and retention from one day to the next is a problem, she said.

Among her students was an inmate who tested at a pre-kindergarten level. That inmate, who initially spent three hours a day in her class, was able to read out of an early first-grade book after four months of hard work.

The student told Jensen he received letters from home but couldn't read them or respond. She began reading the letters to him and helping him write back.

"By the third letter, he said he could make most of it out," Jensen said. And by the time he was released, the man had the tools to continue to learn to read.

Another student started the reading class six months ago. At first, he read very haltingly and needed help with many words.  Due mostly to his own diligence, both in the classroom and working on his own, the inmate gained more than two levels on the TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) score.

"The impressive thing is how much better he feels about himself," Jensen said, adding that about once a week the inmate thanks her. "I always remind him that it was totally him and his constant effort. I am so happy for him. The world is open to him now."

Every class has a mix of students at different reading levels, which means Jensen has to work up a variety of lessons and spelling tests to meet their needs.

"We try to do things that keep in mind their levels so they are able to learn without feeling overwhelmed but stay challenged," Jensen said.

Jensen said one of her favorite books used in her classes is "Touching Spirit Bear" by   Ben Mikaelsen. It's the story of a young boy, a troublemaker, who is banished to a remote Alaskan island in lieu of jail time.

"I love that one because it deals with a boy with super anger issues and has to come to the reality of himself," Jensen said.

Another favorite: "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss because of its repetitive use of words.

"I have to admit it. I find it so touching to watch grown men sounding out letters and words and totally in their own world as they are working," Jensen said. "They are really trying and not letting anything get in their way."

Not all the inmates in her classes want to be there, Jensen admits. But some truly do want to get an education.

"You just watch them soaking it all in. That is where my reward is, that rare one or two people soaking it all in," Jensen said. "The others — I don't care what reason brought them to the classroom, they might grasp something that is of value to them."