Above: Ezekiel at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility reads an Oregon Battle of the Books title, Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson.
Before his incarceration, Ethan B. often spent his free time looking at his phone, watching TV, or playing video games.
But the peaceful, quiet evenings in his living unit dorm at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility inspired him to take on a new hobby: reading.
“I never used to take time out of my day to read,” the 18-year-old says. “Now, almost every night, I’m reading the Bible. As much as I can, I’m actually understanding the stuff in there. Reading is one of my passions now. It’s helped my vocabulary a ton.”
Youth at Rogue Valley and four other OYA facilities put in more reading hours than usual over the past few months as they participated in two reading competitions: Oregon Battle of the Books, and Unbound, sponsored by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS).
Their teachers and facility staff supported the competitions to motivate youth to improve their reading and comprehension skills, and to get them more engaged with school.
But, for incarcerated youth, reading can sometimes take on a different role: a form of escape.
“I did read on the outs, but not nearly as much as I have since I’ve been incarcerated,” says Alek W., 19, at Rogue Valley. “When I was in juvie (county juvenile detention), I just sat in my cell all day, so I read and read. It helps me escape and take my mind off things, getting trapped in these really good stories.”
Ethan and Alek are among eight youth at Rogue Valley to participate in the Oregon Battle of the Books (OBOB). The program — where students read a prescribed set of books and compete against other schools in trivia battles — is quite popular in Oregon’s public schools.
“The idea is to read the books but to also try to remember what happened in the books,” says Tracy Linstad, who teaches English at Rogue Valley’s New Bridge High School.
Linstad obtained a grant from OBOB to receive a free set of this year’s books for New Bridge. Her students are not able to compete against outside schools because they cannot leave their facility, but they are planning a competition via Skype against a team from OYA’s Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility in Burns.
Rogue Valley youth Jarrod L., 17, has already read 10 of the books. His favorite was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. “It’s about a girl who saw her best friend get shot, in a police brutality case,” he says. “It’s cool to read books that correlate with today.”
Ezekiel H., 14, also at Rogue Valley, was drawn to Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, whose main character has schizophrenia. “I’ve actually slowed down on reading a bit since I’ve gotten here, since I’ve gotten a bit more social,” he says. “But now I’m interested in trying to actually learn something from the book, rather than just reading to waste time.”
At OYA’s Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility and Camp Tillamook Youth Transitional Facility, students logged just over 1,200 hours of reading during February as part of the Unbound competition.
Unbound is a month-long readathon for students in secure facilities nationwide. Rogue Valley and MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility also took in this year’s challenge.
Aiming to help youth develop a habit of reading and engagement with books, Unbound places no limits on what they can read. Students track how many minutes they read each day, and each facility’s scores are tallied against other competitors nationally.
“Sometimes guys come to our program and say, ‘I don’t like to read,’” says Terry Groce, who teaches English at the Tillamook facilities’ Trask River High School. “And within months, they’re taking three books out of the library each week.”
CEEAS offers several rewards to incentivize participation in Unbound, including a certificate noting when a student reads their first book.
“It’s common that kids come in and they haven’t read any books,” Groce says. “They’ll say, ‘I was in class and they were reading, but I didn’t do it. I faked it.’ Suddenly they start reading these books and think, ‘That’s really interesting.’”
Groce says the support of OYA staff in the living units has contributed to youths’ excitement about the Unbound challenge.
“Our whole facility, including the GLCs (group life coordinators) and everyone on unit, are all part of this. It’s a big team,” he says. “The youth learn that they can be good at something, whereas before, many of them weren’t really into school. Now they’re starting to put their abilities toward something, and they’re finding success.”