Orange is the new Dress Code By Karen Bossick

The five men filing into the classroom wore orange smocks, orange pants—even orange socks underneath their brown clogs.

The orange served as a bright contrast to the white cinder-block walls that made up the library of the county jail.

Paperbacks donated by community members lined the shelves. They included Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” classics like “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” a biography on J. Edgar Hoover and various versions of the Bible, including one titled “Free on the Inside” written specifically for prison inmates.

None of the men sitting around the table had read any of these—they had spent the first 20 or 30 years of their lives trying to navigate the world without knowing how to read. But Jose Varela­­the, the man at the front of the room, was trying to change that with the help of the Nardagani reading program.

One of the men in orange rattled off a set of words as Jose kept an eye on the clock to see how many words the inmate could read in a minute’s time.

“Better!” beamed the man in orange. “I’m getting better each time.”

Three of the five around the table were Hispanic. They had learned to read Nardagani first in their own language. Now, they were learning to read English using the Nardagani code, which uses squares, triangles, diamonds and other simple symbols written beneath the words to denote the different sounds one letter, like “O”, can make.

A big, husky inmate covered with tattoos read aloud a passage about jungle animals trying to save their monkey friend in a book coded with Nardagani symbols. He had learned to read in English, using Nardagani. Now, he was trying to broaden his educational experience by learning Spanish using Nardagani.

Jose wrote a word from the book on the board with symbols underneath.

“The ‘G’ in ‘village’ sounds like ‘J,’” he told his audience. “The ‘T’ in ‘statue’ has a ‘CH’ sound.”

Eighty-­five percent of so­-called juvenile delinquents are functionally illiterate, and 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Two­-thirds of students who can’t read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare, the study added. More than 70 percent of the inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth­-grade level. And 90 percent of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.

But Nardagani has been proven to make a difference. Inmates who receive literacy help while in jail or prison have just a 16 percent chance of returning to prison, as opposed to 70 percent who receive no help.

“I have found myself reading because I want to, instead of having to, thanks to the Nardagani program,” said one inmate. “I sure wish they had had a program like this when I was young.”

“It’s kinda like V­8: Good for you, yet tastes great. I have a new understanding of the language,” said another.

Barb Mercer, a reading specialist for more than 40 years, entered the room after getting buzzed through all the checkpoints into the heart of the jail. She was there to assess the inmates’ improvement.

Those reading at a third­-grade level are expected to know words such as city, middle, moment, frightened, exclaimed, several, drew, since and straight.

To read at sixth-grade level, they must be able to recognize words such as bridge, commercial, abolish, trucker, elementary, comment and necessity.

Missing more than three words is known as a “frustration level,” Mercer said. “The other day, I tested five women—one read at sixth­-grade level and another at seventh. A couple had gotten their GED. A couple more had dropped out of school—that’s when they usually start getting in trouble because they have nothing to do with their time.”

One inmate told Mercer no one had taught her to read—they just put her in special education, labeled her and passed her on to the next grade year after year, even though she didn’t possess the reading skills required of that grade level. Now, at 41 years of age, she is learning to read via Nardagani.

“For people struggling to learn to read, this is an excellent system,” Mercer said. “The coding is like a game—it’s fun. In Washington, where I worked before I retired, you didn’t graduate if you couldn’t pass seventh­-grade reading. This would have helped many of the students gain the ability to read at seventh-­grade level.”

Mercer paused to take a note from a guard at the jail. It was from an inmate asking if she could bring her a book on Alexander the Great next time she came to the jail. “It’s fun to see how their reading improves over a short period of time,” Mercer said. “And all of them are just so grateful.”

Caitie Sfingi