Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
New Mexico State University
Dona Ana Branch Community College
is a draft of a submission included in the
Encyclopedia of Corrections, edited by Mary
of individuals are housed in correctional facilities. Literacy
skills are important to these individuals and can aid in the
successful functioning of the institutions. Many prison jobs
require literacy skills and inmates are often required to fill
out forms to make requests. Reading and writing provide
productive options for passing time while in prison. Letters
to family and friends are a vital link to the outside world.
Literacy skills are also important for those who will leave
prison and attempt to reintegrate into the community. Jobs,
continued education, and many social opportunities depend on
the ability to read and write - regardless of whether an
individual is in prison.
consistently demonstrates that quality education is one of the
most effective forms of crime prevention. Educational skills
help deter people from committing criminal acts. As a result,
educational programs decrease the likelihood that people will
return to crime, and prison. In the United States, a "get
tough on crime" mentality has resulted in a push to
incarcerate, punish, and limit the activities of prisoners.
Over the last 10 years political pressure has led to the
elimination of funding for many corrections education
programs. Many programs that have been demonstrated as
extraordinarily effective have been completely eliminated.
programs continue in many correctional facilities in spite of
program cuts. These programs meet with little political
resistance, in part because they can be run at a relatively
low cost. In addition, state and federal guidelines that
encourage the development of literacy skills typically apply
to all citizens, including prisoners. Prison literacy programs
also benefit from volunteer efforts of organizations and
for Literacy Programs
total number of prisoners in federal or state facilities was
almost 1.4 million in 2000. Nearly 600,000 inmates were
released in 2000, either unconditionally or under conditions
of parole. Many of those released will be rearrested and will
return to incarceration. Costs of this cycle of incarceration
and reincarceration are very high. Corrections education has
the potential to greatly reduce these costs. One study
indicates that those who benefited from correctional education
recidivated 29% less often that those who did not have
educational opportunities while in the correctional
institution (Steurer, Smith, and Tracy, 2001). When we
consider the high cost of imprisonment, the increasing prison
population, and the increasing number of individuals released
from prison at the end of their sentences, literacy programs
provide a cost effective opportunity to reduce crime and the
costs of crime.
is perhaps the greatest common denominator in correctional
facilities. Data collected from the National Adult Literacy
Survey (NALS) show that literacy levels among inmates is
considerably lower than for the general population. For
example, of the 5 levels measured by the NALS, 70% of inmates
scored at the lowest two levels of literacy (below 4th
grade). Other research suggests that 75% of inmates are
illiterate (at the 12th grade level) and 19% are
completely illiterate. Forty percent are functionally
illiterate. In real world terms, this means that the
individual would be unable to write a letter explaining a
billing error. In comparison, the national illiteracy rate for
adult Americans stands at 4%, with 21% functionally
related concern is that prisoners have a higher proportion of
learning disabilities than the general population. Estimates
of learning disability are as high as 75-90% for juvenile
offenders. Low literacy levels and high rates of learning
disabilities have contributed to high dropout rates.
Nationwide, over 70% of all people entering state correctional
facilities have not completed high school, with 46% having had
some high school education and 16.4% having had no high school
education at all. Since there is a strong link between
low levels of education and high rates of criminal activity,
it is logical to assume that high dropout rates will lead to
higher crime rates.
correctional facility provides a controlled education setting
for prisoners, many of whom are motivated students. However,
the prison literacy educator faces many challenges. Students
in these programs evidence a wide range of potential and have
had varying educational experiences. The educator's challenge
is compounded by the uniqueness of prison culture and the need
for security. Prisons adhere to strict routines, which may not
be ideal in an educational setting. Inmates are often moved
from one facility to another. This movement interrupts, or
ends, the individual's educational programming. These
structural issues are accompanied by social factors that can
further limit learning opportunities. Peer pressure may
discourage attendance or achievement. Prison administrators
have varying degrees of support for education - especially if
they see education as a threat to the primary functions of
security and control.
spite of the challenges, examples in the literature
demonstrate that programs based on current thinking about
literacy and sound adult education practices can be effective
in prison settings. Successful prison literacy programs are
learner centered, recognizing different learning styles,
cultural backgrounds, and multiple literacies (Newman et al.
1993). Successful programs typically use learner strengths to
help them shape their own learning. Historically, literacy
education has been offered to the general population by two
volunteer agencies: Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) and
Laubach Literacy International. Both have a presence in
correctional facilities through trained volunteers and staff.
However, because educational programming depends on the
philosophy and policies of the correctional facility, there is
little data to suggest uniformity in delivery of literacy
services to inmates.
and curricula are two common elements in many prison literacy
programs. Several standardized reading tests are available to
literacy instructors. Besides the Test of Adults in Basic
Education (TABE), two other tests are commonly used. One, the
Grey Oral Reading Test, measures the fluency and comprehension
of the learner. For example, it determines the learner's
ability to recognize common written words such as "car," "be,"
"house," "do" by sight or in context. A second commonly used
test for literacy skills is the National Assessment of Adult
Literacy (NAAL). This test is divided into five levels ranging
from assessing the learner's ability to fill out a deposit
slip (Level I), determining the difference in price between
two items (Level II) to demonstrating proficiency in
interpreting complex written passages (Level V). These tests
can be used to assess needs, track progress, and demonstrate
success to the learner and to administrators who may be called
on to support the program.
literacy curricula are available to prison educators. The
National Institute for Literacy developed standards for
literacy as a component of lifelong learning. This program
focuses on skill acquisition in three areas: worker, family
member, and citizen. The standards are broken down into four
general areas with several sub-areas. For example,
"communication" is broken into the following sub-areas: 1)
reading with understanding; 2) conveying ideas in writing; 3)
speaking so others can understand; 4) listening actively; and
5) observing critically. The curriculum utilizes activities
that are relevant to the learner's life to develop skills in
reading. Laubach Literacy offers curricula that can be used in
classroom settings or in one-on-one instruction. "Reading Is
Fundamental" and "Project Read" are examples of federally
funded literacy programs that offer text-based curriculum.
there are similarities in each of these programs, data does
not suggest a standardized delivery method for literacy
programs in correctional facilities. The programs generally
include reading, writing, calculating, listening, speaking,
and problem-solving as core parts of a literacy curriculum. In
general, successful programs are learner centered,
participatory, sensitive to the prison culture, and linked to
the 70s, the correctional philosophy has shifted from a
rehabilitative to a punitive approach. As a result, today's
correctional facilities are viewed primarily as a means of
separating criminals from the public. Although prisons have
become increasingly punitive, correctional facilities remain
responsible for addressing literacy problems among the
corrections population. The logic behind providing literacy
services in prison is that all of society benefits by allowing
access to educational resources that are available to everyone
else. As such, literacy programs should not be seen as
"special treatment" for prisoners. The federal government
encourages literacy skill improvement in all entities,
including prisons, that receive federal aid and at least 26
states have enacted mandatory educational requirements for
certain populations. These policies demonstrate the importance
placed on efforts to improve literacy skills.
there are challenges, literacy programs can provide relatively
inexpensive educational program within correctional
institutions. When we consider the high cost of imprisonment,
coupled with a growing prison population, literacy programs
provide a cost effective opportunity to improve the job
related skills of incarcerated individuals. A large percentage
of these individuals will be released from prison and will be
expected to successfully, and lawfully, reintegrate in our
communities. Literacy education provides a large payoff to the
community in terms of crime reduction and employment
opportunities for ex-offenders. Investments in these programs
have been confirmed as wise, and cost effective, public
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