CRAWFORDVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Steady applause from men dressed in blue-grey prison uniforms preceded Steven Petrarca as he stood planted behind the chapel lectern at Wakulla Correctional Institution.

The stately, silver-haired inmate delivered a personal speech offering a glimpse into his angst when he first entered the prison system. Once inside, a man with a toothless smiled called out his name. The voice was foreign. Upon closer inspection, Petrarca recognized the man as someone who grew up in his old neighborhood.

The old friend shared his stories from in and out of prison. Petrarca felt like he didn’t belong.

“I wondered how I was going to make it in this world of fences and razor wire,” said Petrarca, a husband and father of three who worked for 25 years in the financial services industry before being sent to prison. “I knew I had to change but how would I do that? It was a new beginning. A new journey.”

In just five more minutes, Petrarca managed to share a chapter of his life, his mistakes and a word of encouragement through his “life’s journey” speech. He, along with other inmates, are fine-tuning their presentations and learning how to be better public speakers through the newly installed Northern Lights Gavel Club at WCI.

The Gavel Club, an affiliate of Toastmasters International, allows inmates to learn public speaking, listening and thinking skills that can be used once they leave prison.

Currently, Florida has about a dozen Gavel Clubs in state prisons and officials with the Florida Department of Corrections are interested in expanding, said Smith Leveille, a DOC spokesman. WCI’s club will have 45 inmates, 30 regular members and 15 associates, who will meet once a week.

The inmates run the club themselves with club officers, such as a president and treasurer. Chuck Rabaut, a citizen volunteer who’s been with Toastmasters since 1974, helps with fundraising for the club’s materials. He’s been a key cheerleader in establishing the club at WCI.

The club uses the same manual and follows identical procedures as Toastmasters.

WCI is a faith- and character-based correctional facility housing 3,300 inmates who are serving sentences ranging from a year to life in prison for various offenses. As the inmates took turns behind the lectern, prison officials and staffers looked on and offered praise for the group’s progress.

“I think it’s important that these guys are able to build their self esteem and self confidence with public speaking and interaction. That’s going to serve them better once they are released back into society,” said WCI Warden Jimmy Coker.

It was especially rewarding for Rabaut.

He was impressed by the firm handshakes extended by each inmate when coming up on and leaving the stage. He commended their use of the small stage, pacing near the edge to better engage the audience. He was thrilled by the inmate acting as master of ceremonies and his command of the room and attention to the program’s flow.

Some inmates were given specific assignments. One monitored the number of times a speaker said “um” or “and.” Another was the time keeper. Two others offered swift but constructive feedback on each speaker’s delivery.

For those inmates not serving life sentences, they will need these skills when they re-enter the real world again, Rabaut said.

“It’s something they can’t get elsewhere,” he said, adding this program can help reduce the state’s recidivism rate. “Once they leave here, we don’t want them coming back. So you have to rehabilitate them…We provide them the tools to operate in society.”


*Pictured above is Steven Petrarca.