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Using inmates to index old newspapers is a winner

The public will benefit as more historic information will be easily available and inmates will have an opportunity to work and gain new skills.

Walla Walla Union Bulletin

Updated: Saturday, July 15, 2006 10:21 PM PDT

Walla Walla, WA - It's been said that newspapers are the first draft of history.

That's certainly the case in Walla Walla where at least one newspaper has documented life in the Valley for nearly a century and a half. The Statesman dates back to 1861 while the Walla Walla Union began publishing in 1869.

There's a lot of Walla Walla's history to be found in those old newspapers, which are archived on microfilm at Whitman College's Penrose Library.

But few people have the time or the energy to comb through microfilm or old newspapers to find out about events of the past or their relatives. The newspapers aren't indexed.

That's changing.

Seventy-seven years of newspapers - from the start of the Civil War through the Great Depression - are now being indexed by 11 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary.

This project, which is funded with a grant from the Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust, will be of great benefit to the people of Walla Walla County and beyond. It will make it possible to easily find information that was published.

In a way, the inmates are drawing a map for that needle in the haystack.

But the inmates, who are working five hours a day, could be gaining the most. They are able to do some meaningful work that will help them pass the time and, in the process, they are learning some valuable skills that could lead to employment when they are eventually released from prison.

Too often those who serve long prison sentences don't have the opportunity to get an education or job training.

Providing education and training is expensive. Given that, it seems to cost less to simply warehouse an inmate rather than to teach him skills.

Over the long run, however, it actually costs society more as inmates who have no skills are far more likely to break the law and return to prison. Over the past few years, as the state has confronted several budget cutbacks, the programs that focus on prison education and job training have been reduced.

At this point, the only way education programs can be expanded is through innovative thinking. This indexing project is extremely innovative and came from a conversation a few years ago between Whitman's former librarian, Henry Yaple, and Janice James, who had taught basic literacy to inmates at the penitentiary.

Yaple saw the need, James knew where there was a willing and able pool of workers.

If the project is successful in Walla Walla - and all indications are it will be - then it could spawn future efforts to index other publications.

The public will benefit as more historic information will be easily available and, in the process, more inmates will have an opportunity to work and gain new skills.



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