Program offers new freedom for illiterate ex-convicts

''Back then, I used to get around,'' says Jeff Fudge, a teen-ager on parole after convictions for armed robbery and accessory to auto theft. ''Now that's all behind me.''

Like most of the 16 other young men in this classroom, Mr. Fudge wants a job. To do it, he and his companions are taking a basic literacy course at the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps former offenders.

''What we're doing is an acculturation into a whole new society,'' says Ron Tonn, assistant director of Safer's basic-skills division. The typical ex-offender enters the course functioning at only a fifth-grade level. After the five-week course, on average they have advanced 11/2 grade levels higher.

''Even though the causal relationship is not known, there is a strong correlation between illiteracy and crime,'' says Bernard O'Hayre, adviser to the department's corrections education program. Only 10 percent of the nation's prison population has completed high school; 85 percent dropped out before age 16, the Education Department says.

Still, some observers are skeptical.

''It's obvious that there are people in prison who can't read and write, but what does that mean?'' asks George Hagenauer, director of Literacy Volunteers of Chicago. ''Does that mean the people who don't read and write get caught more often?''

''Most of our students are 30- to 40-year-olds,'' he says. Ten or 15 years ago, their literacy problems didn't matter that much because they had a job. Now , those jobs are disappearing. But the men in this room don't intend to be left behind.

''Before I got here, I wasn't reading any books,'' says Phillip Moffett. ''Once I got into it, I enjoyed it. Maybe it would help me on in life.''

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