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