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

Kenneth Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
New Mexico State University
Molly Wilkinson, Ph.D.
Dona Ana Branch Community College
This is a draft of a submission included in the
Encyclopedia of Corrections, edited by Mary Bosworth

Millions 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.

Research 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.

Literacy 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 individuals.

Need for Literacy Programs

The 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.

Illiteracy 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 illiterate.

A 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.

Prison Literacy Programs

The 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.

In 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.

Testing 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.

Several 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.

Although 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 post-release services.


Since 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.

Although 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 policy.

References and Suggested Reading

American Corrections Association (2002).

Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002). "Key crime and justice facts at a glance."

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

Kerka, S. (1995). "Prison Literacy Programs." Eric Digest no. 159. Columbus, OH:

Kollhoff, M. (2002). "Reflections of a Kansas Corrections Educator." The Journal of Correctional Education, 53(2), June 2002, 44-45.

Laubach Literacy Oranization (2002).

Leone, P.E. and Meisel, S. (1997). "Improving educational services for students in detention and confinement facilities." Childrens' Legal Rights Journal, 17(1), 2-12.

LoBuglio, S. (2001). "Time to reframe politics and practices in correctional education." In J. Comings, B. garner and C. Smith (Eds.), Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Vol.2. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center (1996). "Correctional education: A worthwhile investment." Linkages: Linking Literacy and Learning Disabilities. Washington, DC: The National Institute for Literacy, 3(2), Fall 1996.

National Institute for Literacy (1999). "Equipped for the future standards."

Newman, A. P.; Lewis, W.; and Beverstock, C. (1993). Prison Literacy. Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.

Paul, M. (1991). When Words are Behind Bars. Kitchener, Ontario: Core Literacy.

Project READ. (1978). "To make a difference." In M.S. Brunner (Ed.1993), Reduce recidivism and increased employment opportunity through research-based reading instruction (pp. 20-27). Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Quinn, M.M. Rutherford, R.B., Leone, P.E. (2001). "Students with disabilities in correctional facilities." ERIC Digest no. E621.

Rutherford, R.B., Nelson, C.M., and Wolford, B.I. (1985). "Special education in the most restrictive environment: Correctional Special Education." Journal of Special Education, 19, 59-71.

Steurer, S., Smith, L., Tracy, A. (2001). "Three State Recidivism Study". Prepared for the Office of Correctional Education, US Department of Education. Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association.

Tolbert, M. (2002). "State Correctional Education Programs." Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy.


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