Ridgeland Correctional inmates brush up on speech skills for life on the other side

Twenty inmates at Ridgeland Correctional Institution are polishing their public speaking skills through Toastmasters. The prison's associate warden and the club's mentor believe Toastmasters could be a key in reducing South Carolina's recidivism rate. (Credit: Josie Gregory)

Inmates at Ridgeland Correctional Institution spend one day a week polishing their speaking skills through Toastmasters.

FOX 28 sat in on one of the meetings to see how it works. South Carolina Department of Corrections did not allow FOX 28 to show inmate faces or mention names.

However, it is not about who is seen; it is about what is heard.

"It's part of a way to escape. We get a chance to express ourselves," one inmate said.

Associate Warden Yvonne Wilkins-Smith brought the program to the prison seven months ago after hearing what she and the Ridgeland Toastmasters mentor, Jodie Randisi, consider "street talk."

"Inspirate, I think it's called inspire. So, we would hear these terms coming out of them that were street talk to them," Randisi said.

Another inmate said, "I used to be pretty bad off with my vocabulary."

Twenty inmates are learning to expand their vocabulary, eliminate slang, and pronounce every syllable. They do this by writing, practicing, and executing a speech a week on a variety of topics.

"It's helped me pick my speech up, where I don't have to do a lot of 'ums,' 'ahs,' 'ya knows," one inmate said.

Each speaker is limited in time, then critiqued on their voice inflection, speech structure, and stutters. "They absorb it like sponges because it's information; it's training., it's leadership. It's communication skills. They immediately see the value of it," Randisi said.

Wilkins-Smith and Randisi hope Toastmasters will improve the way the inmates communicate, enable them to present themselves in a professional manner, and solidify a life on the other side of the jail cell.

The two admit they are already seeing vast improvements; the inmates also agree.

"I have actually developed into a better person, a better individual. I've came a long way," an inmate said.

Randisi said Toastmasters could be a key in cutting South Carolina's recidivism rate. According to the South Carolina Department of Corrections, in the latest recidivism rate report, 25.5 percent of inmates released in 2013 returned to prison within three years.

She cites an early 2000s Toastmasters study conducted at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

She said researchers followed 400 inmates for five years upon release. Two-hundred inmates did not participate in the prison's Toastmasters program, while 200 inmates did. She said none of the inmates who participated in the Toastmasters program at the prison returned within five years.

Randisi believes Ridgeland Correctional Institutional could see the same.

"When they get up and know they can find their voice and deliver it so the message that they're trying to get out is received, they have a new perspective of themselves," she said.

Wilkins-Smith and Randisi said they would love to expand the club at the prison, but each new member must pay dues to join.

Randisi has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay the dues for inmates wanted to participate.