Toastmasters couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic instructor to bring the public speaking program Speechcraft inside the walls of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections than Ed Skurka DTM and his team of six Toastmasters. All are RIDOC volunteers.
Skurka, who has his own business teaching public speaking, can't stop talking about the impact the program has had on the dozens of men and women who have participated in it since he began teaching it in men's Maximum in September of 2010 at the request of the warden. On average, there has been a waiting list of 20-25 for the Speechcraft class in men's Maximum. It came to women's more recently, in January of 2012.
There have now been five 12-week Speechcraft cycles in men's Maximum Security and one in the Gloria McDonald Women's Medium and Awaiting Trial Facility, and the next session in each of those buildings will begin on Wednesday, May 2nd, from 6:15 – 8:15 p.m. Skurka's co-leader, Esther Paris DTM, as well as Toastmasters members Dale Adams, Karen Golembeski, Eric Holmstedt, and Don Gendron, will also be present that night.
At the end of each session, a "graduation" is held where each participant receives a certificate of completion. "We tell them our reward is to see and hear their growth and improvement from week to week, from the 'deer in the headlights' speakers on the first night to the skilled and confident speakers we saw and heard tonight," writes Skurka in describing the last such ceremony. In addition to the students, several inmates who have previously completed the program have returned as "mentors" and have been acknowledged for their dedication and leadership.
"One of the benefits of the Speechcraft program in the prisons is that we, the instructors, get to be a bit more of the teacher/coach than we can be in our regular TM club meetings." Ed finds the prison teaching experience to be extremely rewarding and feels his fellow instructors share that sentiment. "Hearing how this three-month Speechcraft experience has changed their lives for the better," he notes, "warms our hearts and truly is our reward. In some way or another, the inmates have all expressed how they have changed and how these communication, public speaking, and leadership skills have made each of them a better person."
Ed speaks of one graduate of the program who went before the Parole Board and asked that his release be delayed by a day so he could attend the 12th and final session. Another who had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction throughout his adult life said he would use his new confidence and skills when standing up and speaking at AA meetings, which he recognized would be a major part of his life outside the walls. Still another, doing time for manslaughter for attempting to kill a man who was mistreating his daughter, said he knew he would never get into that kind of predicament again because he now had the communication skills to talk the problem out rather than flying off the handle and resorting to violence.
According to its website, Toastmasters (Toastmasters.org) is the leading international communications and leadership training organization with over 13,000 clubs in 116 countries around the world. Over 1,000 major corporations and institutions have in-house Toastmasters clubs, and there are many community clubs open to the public. Rhode Island alone has 17 clubs, including Bank of America, Citizens Bank, Raytheon, Fidelity, Brown University, Providence College, Amgen, MetLife, and Salve Regina, along with five community clubs which are open to the public.
Prison clubs are part of Toastmasters' community outreach program. There are many Toastmasters clubs in prisons throughout the U.S. and many more Toastmaster individuals or teams lead the outreach program called Speechcraft inside the walls. According to the website, participants in Prison Toastmasters Clubs are less likely to return to prison than other inmates. "The statistics are not scientific, but, where tracked, they range from five to ten percent recidivism for Toastmasters-trained inmates versus fifty to seventy percent for the general prison population. If fewer people return to prison, there will be less crime, fewer tax dollars spent on prisons, more tax paying citizens, and stronger families."
Students in Speechcraft often begin with little confidence and poor speaking abilities. "We are constantly amazed by their newly developed knowledge, skills, and confidence as demonstrated by their speeches," says Skurka. He attributes this to the safe, supportive, and encouraging environment of the program. "Respect, courtesy, positive attitude, and positive evaluation are the foundation of Speechcraft's success," he explains.
Members of the press are invited to sit in on a session of the Speechcraft program in either Men's Medium or Women's. Please contact Tracey E. Zeckhausen, Chief of Information and Public Relations, at (401) 462-2609 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are able to do so.