Group brings Toastmasters into prison
A group of Fairfield residents is helping inmates sharpen their public speaking skills.
Betty and Fred Krueger volunteer at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison where they help prisoners run a Toastmasters program.
The Toastmasters club in the maximum security prison is run just like any other Toastmasters club on the outside. The prisoners give speeches on prepared topics, practice extemporaneous speaking on current events and evaluate each other for grammar and fluidity.
“The topics cover everything imaginable,” Fred said. “The dominant themes are pieces of wisdom the inmates are aware of and the positive things they’ve learned.”
The club meets twice a month for two hours at a time. Betty and Fred have attended the meetings together since 2004 and Betty has attended them since 2000. Betty had been involved in Toastmasters since the 1990s when she and Fred lived in Las Vegas. She started attending the Toastmaster club at the Iowa State Penitentiary because she wanted another outlet to practice public speaking, and prison seemed like it would be an unusually challenging setting.
“At first, it sounded like an interesting opportunity to do Toastmasters to a different audience,” she said. “I knew it would be a very different audience than the local Toastmasters club.”
The prison requires volunteers such as Fred and Betty to help administer the program. Nevertheless, the meetings themselves are run by the inmates. Not only that, but the inmates actually took the initiative to start the club, including raising the $1,000 necessary for charter membership.
The Toastmasters club in the prison is known as “CONscious Communicators Toastmasters Club.” It was founded the same year the Kruegers became involved. The number of volunteers who help with the program has ranged from a high of 12 to only five, which is about how many attend now.
Fred said he was not worried about being around convicted criminals, although he was not excited by the idea initially.
“I had no interest in hanging out with a bunch of criminals, but I had never been in prison and I thought it would be interesting to see inside one,” he said. “When I went there, I was so impressed with the way these guys supported one another. I could see them rooting for the new guy who was speaking in front of 30 people. I wasn’t expecting all the positive emotions in the club. That’s really what hooked me.”
Fred said the inmates he comes in contact with are the “cream of the crop of inmates” who want to move on from their past.
“These are individuals who are seeking personal growth,” he said. “They want to be active and use their minds. Many of them appreciate the opportunity to express themselves.”
Expressing oneself is no easy task within the prison walls. Fred said it’s a rough environment with plenty of “rough people.” He said the inmates have to act like they’re ready to defend themselves at any moment. This is a façade of ruggedness they only let down during their Toastmasters meetings.
“These individuals can express their sensitivity by reciting poems, and some of them are very good at writing poems,” he said. “They can be who they really are. No façade is necessary, which is a precious thing for them and very different from the outside.”
Fred said inmates have told him how freeing the Toastmasters meetings are.
“No prisoner is going to recite poetry in the yard,” he said. “Inmates have told me they look forward to Toastmasters because it’s a place where they can speak their mind.”
The inmates take such pride in their public speaking they endeavor to improve their skills by completing assigned projects. The inmates learn from a manual which covers the fundamentals of public speaking. They can go on to do more advanced manuals where they sharpen their knowledge of persuasive techniques, body language and visual aids. The inmates work on a variety of speeches such as humorous speaking and storytelling.
Toastmasters clubs can earn awards from the parent organization by completing these manuals and through other means such as attracting new members. The CONscious Communicators worked so diligently in the past year they earned the title of “presidential distinguished club” for all the goals their club met.
In addition to their work with Toastmasters, the Kruegers help run a stress management program inside the prison through the International Association for Human Values. The program, known as the Prison S.M.A.R.T. Program, uses breathing techniques, yoga and discussions about wisdom to relax the inmates. Like CONscious Communicators, it meets twice a month.
“It’s a program that helps release stress through natural means as opposed to just through drugs,” Betty said.
The program is two years old and the Kruegers have noticed the prisoners who practice the techniques have “mellowed out.”
For their service in CONscious Communicators and the Prison S.M.A.R.T. program, Fred and Betty will receive a Governor’s Volunteer Award on behalf of their two volunteer clubs at a ceremony June 28 in Ottumwa. The ceremony starts at 9:30 a.m. at St. John Auditorium on the campus of Indian Hills Community College.
Betty and Fred said the clubs are always looking for more volunteers. They can be reached at