Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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ESL in Corrections

Molly Wilkinson, Ph.D.
Dona Ana Branch Community College
Kenneth Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
New Mexico State University

This is a draft of a submission included in the
Encyclopedia of Corrections, edited by Mary Bosworth

English as a Second Language (ESL) is the term used to describe English language instruction for nonnative English speakers. Another term used to describe the non-proficient English speaker is Limited English Proficiency (LEP). All prisoners in the U.S. should be able to demonstrate proficiency in English. If not, they must enroll in ESL or LEP instruction. In addition to providing language skills needed in the institution, corrections-based ESL and LEP instruction seeks to provide the learner with the basic language skills necessary to perform adequately in general education classes.

Of the 1.4 million inmates in federal or state prisons, 8% are non-US citizens. The number of inmates with limited English speaking ability is much higher. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 31.7% of inmates held in federal facilities are classified as Hispanic, 1.6% as Native American, and 1.8% as Asian. These numbers vary greatly by state. For example, 53% of New Mexico inmates are Hispanic. New York has the second highest percentage of Hispanic inmates with over 32%. Five other states have Hispanic prison populations of over 25%. Although Spanish is the most common non-English language in prison, the ethnic background of inmates is changing in ways that reflect recent trends in immigration. As a result, we can expect an even wider range of languages in state and federal prisons. Due of a growing number of illegal immigrants, in some cases entire facilities are being filled with non-English speakers. In this case the language needs are so complex that ESL instruction is being supplemented, or replaced, with electronic translation technologies.

Assessing and Teaching

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (1992) reports that on a scale of one (low) to five (high), over half of nonnative speakers consistently scored below Level 3. Level 2 was the average level for Hispanics born in the United States, while level 1 was the average for immigrants from Hispanic countries. Level 3 was the average for Asian-Pacific Islander born in the United States, compared to Level 2 for immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Several standardized and commercial tests are used to determine the proficiency level of a potential ESL student. Among these are Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), Adult Basic Learning Exam (ABLE), Basic English Skills Test (BEST), CASAS ESL Appraisal, and the Henderson-Moriarty ESL Placement (HELP). Some of these tests measure the proficiency of the learner in his or her native language to provide a comparison with the learner's aptitude in English. Other tests measure oral abilities such as listening and speaking (the first two levels of English acquisition), while others measure writing and reading as well (the upper levels of English acquisition). The results of most tests need to be interpreted in order properly to classify the learner by level. Training on interpretation is required for best results, yet, due to expenses, such training is often not provided to the instructor. As a result, in many cases the learner is not properly classified before enrolling in ESL classes.

Several curricula are available to the nonnative speaker. Some of these, provided by general education material providers, include student workbooks, learning tapes, and instructor manuals. Two other curricula commonly used and available for correctional facilities are "Crossroads Cafe" and "I Can Read." These programs include videos that the student can use without support from an instructor or tutor. The videos show the learner the written target word, pronounce the word, and connect the word to phrases or objects.


Regardless of the curricula chosen, language mastery depends in part on the ability of the learner to interact with others to practice new vocabulary and speech patterns. This is not an easy task for the incarcerated student. Procedural policies of many facilities do not provide for adequate interaction, slowing down the acquisition process. Funding issues in correctional facilities create another problem. Corrections education programs typically have limited educational funds for materials. Administrators are forced to prioritize their expenditures. As a result, materials purchased for use in correctional education programs are concentrated on English-proficient students. This leaves the limited English proficient inmate without adequate resources to improve his or her language skills.

On average, it takes 5-7 years for a nonnative speaker of English to become accomplished at most communication tasks. The minimum requirement for a person literate in their native language is 750-1000 hours of skills development to satisfy basic needs and to have limited social interaction in English. Due to the nature of correctional facilities, many inmates are transferred or released before that time period has elapsed. As a result, it may be difficult for prisoners to complete their ESL education in a correctional facility. However, even if basic language skills are not fully developed, one of the goals of the ESL educator is to help the individual acquire language skills necessary for survival in the prison society. This can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time.

Current Programs and Issues in ESL Training

Many different ESL programs are utilized in correctional facilities. Several states provide ESL training as part of their adult basic education programming. Since correctional educational literacy programs vary from facility to facility, it is difficult to discover what services are provided to inmates. Each state, and in some cases each facility, feel different pressures to develop and administer ESL and LEP programs. Varying levels of integration with other corrections education programs can also lead to problems with information sharing that could lead to increased standardization of delivery.

Since funding for ESL programs does not typically fall into state mandated education budgets, ESL specific programs must compete with state funds allocated to general education within the corrections departments. As a result, many facilities rely on outside volunteers or contractors to provide ESL instruction. Community volunteers and school agencies, such as community colleges, offer the majority of ESL programs to the general population. In addition, Laubach International and Literacy Volunteers of America have historically offered special training for low-language proficiency learners and currently offer materials and guidelines for instruction in corrections-based ESL services.

Most ESL students are grouped with English-proficient students in general classrooms. Many of these students drop out of correctional education for the same reasons they do so in general public facilities' education. Common reasons include problems related to grasping the language vocabulary, understanding the sub-culture expressed through language, and learning the conversational patterns used in normal speaking. Since speech patterns vary among ethnic groups, and these vary from Standard English speech patterns, students are likely to make several mistakes speaking English as a Second language. In addition to the inherent difficulty of learning a new language, pedagogical approaches on the part of educators may diminish their effectiveness as teachers to non-English speakers. Many of these problems can be addressed through the development of ESL specific programs or by encouraging educators to work to participate in opportunities for ESL training.


Data indicate that corrections education is an effective tool in the effort to reduce recidivism. Less evidence is available regarding a link between ESL programs and crime reduction. We know that correctional institutions function better when prisoners are encouraged to live together and follow the rules. As with other forms of corrections education, ESL and LEP programs provide opportunities for prisoners to learn to "do their time" in a productive way.

Many benefits of ESL instruction are difficult to assess. For example, it is hard to measure large scale improvement in the ability to effectively function within correctional facilities. Corrections education is consistently shown to be very effective in efforts to reduce recidivism and improve employability after prison. Although the relationship of ESL instruction and crime control has not been clearly demonstrated, there is no reason to believe that ESL instruction does not have the same potential. In many cases the incarcerated individual will not be able to fully participate in corrections education without first learning to speak English. As such, the benefits of education are denied to those with limited English skills.

The corrections industry, like the justice system as a whole, relies on established procedures, policies, and laws. The incarcerated individual, and the institutions in which individuals are incarcerated, each benefit from efforts to assure that policies and procedures are effectively communicated. These policies and practices are often intended to protect the rights of those who interact with the system. Those who do not speak the dominant language of this system are at a distinct disadvantage. Although general impacts are difficult to assess, ESL instruction has the potential to reduce this disadvantage and minimize the loss of rights that may occur when an individual is unable to actively participate in processes that have serious implications.

Further Reading

Bureau of Justice Statistics (2003). "Key crime and justice facts at a glance." U.S. Department of Justice.

Burt, M. and Keenan, F. (1995). "Adult ESL Learner Assessment: purposes and tools." National Center for ESL Literacy Education. ERIC Digest No. EDO-LE-95-08.

Fillmore, L.W. and Snow, C.E. (2000). "What teachers need to know about language." U.S. Department of Education: Educational Research and Improvement. ERIC Digest No. ED-99-CO-0008

Haigler, K. O.; Harlow, C.; O'Connor, P.; and Campbell, A. (1994). Literacy Behind Prison Walls. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Heilman, K. and Lawson, K.M. (2000). "Facilitating communication with limited- and non-english-speaking offenders." Corrections Today, Dec. 2000.

Office of Science and Technology of the National Institute of Justice (2000). "Do You Speak English?" Corrections Today, Dec. 2000.

Richiusa, G. (1997). "Language barriers: Teaching ESL in the Corrections System." American Language Review, Nov/Dec 1997, 1, (5).


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