The following comes from a handbook for instructors teaching in correctional facilities in West Virginia. Note the training requirements and recommendations.
If West Virginia can afford to invest in education for the incarcerated, certainly the "ninth wealthiest county in the nation" can. I'm not a believer in our local government, however, because the county's commitment to education and law enforcement is historically low. I can provide numerous examples of our local government's priorities, but I think I've blogged about this before and don't feel like going down that well-documented road again. Look it up under my PWC and immigration labels if you really care to.
Go ahead and laugh at West Virginia, but they are way ahead of us.
PRISON LITERACY PROGRAMS
ERIC Digest #159
Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education
"It costs the government half a million bucks to keep me in jail and $450 to teach me to
read and write" (ex-con cited in Porporino and Robinson 1992, p. 92). The literacy
demands of the workplace and society in general are growing in complexity, and
recurring linked cycles of poverty and low literacy levels put some people at increasing
disadvantage. The prison population includes disproportionate numbers of the poor;
those released from prisons are often unable to find employment, partly due to a lack of
job and/or literacy skills, and are often re-incarcerated (Paul 1991). Add to that the high
cost of imprisonment and the huge increase in the prison population, and it seems clear
that mastery of literacy skills may be a preventive and proactive way to address the
problem. However, correctional educators contend with multiple problems in delivering
literacy programs to inmates. This Digest sets the context of prison literacy programs,
outlines some of the constraints, and describes what factors work.
Context of Prison Literacy
Literacy skills are important in prisons in several ways: inmates often must fill out forms
to make requests, letters are a vital link with the outside world, some prison jobs require
literacy skills, and reading is one way to pass time behind bars (Paul 1991). The way
literacy is defined is critical to achieving an accurate picture of prisoners' skills. The
National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) defines literacy as a broad range of skills; it is
not a simple condition one either has or does not have, but a continuum on which
individuals have varying degrees of skill in interpreting prose, documents, and numbers.
The NALS (Haigler et al. 1994) included interviews with some 1,100 inmates from
federal and state prisons in order to depict the state of the prison population and
compare it to the general population. Of the 5 levels measured, 7 in 10 inmates
performed on the lowest 2 levels, on the average substantially lower than the general
population. Only 51% of prisoners completed high school compared to 76% of the
general population. Differences in literacy proficiencies were related to racial/ethnic
status, educational attainment, and disability. Similarly, Newman et al. (1993) suggest
that, by a 12th-grade standard, 75% of inmates are illiterate and that prisoners have a
higher proportion of learning disabilities than the general population (including 75-90%
of juvenile offenders). Other studies found that 65-70% of inmates (Sperazi 1990) and
over 70% of inmates (Sacramento County 1994) did not complete high school. Even
those with a high school diploma have lower proficiencies (Haigler et al. 1994).
However, some evidence exists to mitigate this bleak picture. In some areas, Haigler et
WVABE Instructor Handbook, Section 15, 2011-12 10
al. found that prisoners with less than a high school education were more proficient than
their out-of-prison counterparts. In Australia, Black et al. (1990) interviewed 200
inmates, finding they generally did less well on the prose, document, and quantitative
scales, but on some literacy items did as well or better than the non-prison population.
They concluded that it is difficult to make comparisons with the general population
because prisoners are on average younger and disproportionately represent certain
groups. They suggest that, because low-literate prisoners often must seek help with
literacy tasks from authorities and are subject to various assessments, their literacy
problems are more visible than those of the general population. Acknowledging that low
literacy in prisons is a serious problem, Black et al. advocate looking at literacy as a
range or continuum and in context.
Constraints on Correctional Education
Between 1980 and 1992, the prison population increased 160% (Jenkins 1994).
Besides the problems caused by overcrowding, correctional educators must contend
with inadequate funding, equipment, and materials (Paul 1991). Many prisoners are
likely to have had negative early schooling experiences and may lack self-confidence or
have poor attitudes about education (ibid.). The prison educator's challenge is
compounded by the uniqueness of prison culture: routines such as lock-downs and
head counts, inmates' hearings or meetings with lawyers, all disrupt regular classes
(Shethar 1993). Tutors and students are sometimes locked in a room and monitored by
guards. Peer pressure may discourage attendance or achievement (Haigler et al. 1994).
In addition, the prison environment is not likely to be rich in verbal and sensory stimuli
A more serious constraint is conflicting beliefs about the goals and purposes of
corrections: security, control, punishment, or rehabilitation? Even in institutions where
the philosophy is more rehabilitative than punitive, education is secondary to security
(Shethar 1993). Part of this debate is the issue of whether prison literacy should be
mandatory or voluntary. The federal prison system began mandatory literacy in 1982,
and in 1991 raised the achievement standard from 8th to 12th grade (Jenkins 1994).
The program has had some success in terms of adult basic education (ABE)
completion, but only a small part of the prison population is in federal institutions (5%);
65% are in state and 25% in county/local jails (Laubach Literacy Action 1994).
Mandatory education is resented by some (Thomas 1992) and it sits uneasily with the
largely voluntary nature of adult education (Jenkins 1994). However, Thomas found that
the least educated prisoners favored mandatory programs, and Ryan and McCabe
(1993) conclude that there is little significant difference in achievement between
mandatory and voluntary instruction.
Another problem faced by prison educators is the use of recidivism as an outcome
measure. Sometimes ABE does have a demonstrable effect on reducing the rate of
re-imprisonment (Porporino and Robinson 1992). But Sacramento County's (1994)
literacy program caused no significant reduction despite academic gains. Problems with
WVABE Instructor Handbook, Section 15, 2011-12 11
recidivism as an evaluation measure include the following: (1) a universal definition is
lacking; (2) it is indirect-it measures law enforcement activity, not education; and (3) it is
too simplistic (ibid.), similar to using retention as the primary yardstick of ABE success.
The effects of literacy programs are influenced by factors beyond educators' control:
"One can argue that literacy programs do not change an economic system that requires
unemployment and a working class and that the ability to read does not change a social
structure that reinforces inequalities" (Shethar 1993, p. 368).
Examples in the literature demonstrate that programs based on current thinking about
literacy and sound adult education practices can be effective. Successful prison literacy
programs are learner centered, recognizing different learning styles, cultural
backgrounds, and multiple literacies (Newman et al. 1993). They are participatory;
instead of taking a "deficit" perspective, educators recognize and use learner strengths
to help them shape their own learning. For example, Boudin (1993) drew upon women
inmates' oral tradition by having them write and perform a play. Literacy should be put
into meaningful contexts that address learner needs. Boudin used concerns about AIDS
in prison as the organizing issue for instruction. Engaging topics motivate and sustain
learner interest; using literature written by prisoners provides relevant subject matter, as
well as writing models (Paul 1991). Family literacy programs enable inmates to view
themselves and be seen in roles other than that of prisoners.
Literacy programs should be tailored to the prison culture. The Principles of the
Alphabet (PALS) computer-assisted instruction program worked in a prison for several
reasons: it was advertised as a "reading lab"; learners were paired according to race,
ethnicity, or the prison "pecking order"; PALS relieves tedium and teaches a skill that
satisfies short-term self-interest; and computer disks afforded inmates a rare opportunity
for privacy (Sperazi 1990). Honeycutt's (1995) interviews with reading program learners
showed that adult education practices may need to be modified: inmates preferred
teachers to facilitate after they taught skills; they liked less formal classroom
arrangements, but wanted well-organized and structured instruction.
Incentives are important motivators, whether programs are mandatory or voluntary:
sentence reductions, parole consideration, preferential prison employment, pay for
school attendance, and grants for higher education are typical rewards for participation
and achievement (Jenkins 1994; Thomas 1992). Lack of funding and staff can be offset
by using community and peer tutors. Community tutors provide links to the outside
world and can help ease the transition back to society (Paul 1991). Peer tutors can build
their own self-esteem, serve as role models, and relate directly to learners' experience
of incarceration (Boudin 1993). Model literacy programs include post-release services
that support the view of literacy as a continuum and reinforce skills that can quickly be
lost. A range of evaluation criteria (Newman et al. 1993) offers multiple ways to assess
program effectiveness: (1) instructional (attendance, test scores, duration, objectives
achieved); (2) behavioral (decreased violence and disruption, better relations with
WVABE Instructor Handbook, Section 15, 2011-12 12
inmates, staff); and (3) post-release (employment rates and success, continuing
education). Other measures include community service, length of time arrest/drug free,
or improved social skills. The Correctional Education Association (1994) provides a
handbook of literacy assessment and instructional techniques that work best in a
Perhaps the best program outcomes are those most difficult to measure. Instead of
viewing literacy as the inculcation of basic skills, embedding it in a broader perspective
of education might address the hopelessness and powerlessness that may be both the
cause and effect of inmates' actions before, during, and after incarceration.
Black, S.; Rouse, R.; and Wickert, R. The Illiteracy Myth: A Comparative Study of
Prisoner Literacy Abilities. Sydney, Australia: University of Technology, 1990.
(ED 328 798)
Boudin, K. "Participatory Literacy Education Behind Bars." Harvard Educational Review
63, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 207-232. (EJ 462 123)
Correctional Education Association. Starting from Scratch. Laurel, MD: CEA, 1994.
(ED 373 188)
Haigler, K. O.; Harlow, C.; O'Connor, P.; and Campbell, A. Literacy Behind Prison
Walls. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 1994.
(ED 377 325)
Honeycutt, R. L. "A Study of Inmates' Perceptions of an Effective Reading Program."
Journal of Correctional Education 46, no. 1 (March 1995): 6-9.
Jenkins, H. D. "Mandatory Education." Journal of Correctional Education 45, no. 1
(March 1994): 26-29.
Laubach Literacy Action. Community-Based Prison Literacy Program Models. Syracuse,
NY: LLA, .
WVABE Instructor Handbook, Section 15, 2011-12 13
Newman, A. P.; Lewis, W.; and Beverstock, C. Prison Literacy, Philadelphia, PA:
National Center on Adult Literacy, 1993. (ED 363 729)
Paul, M. When Words Are Bars. Kitchener, Ontario: Core Literacy, 1991. (ED 334 371)
Porporino, F. J., and Robinson, D. "The Correctional Benefits of Education." Journal of
Correctional Education 43, no. 2 (June 1992): 92-98. (EJ 445 423)
Ryan, T. A., and McCabe, K. A. "The Relationship Between Mandatory vs. Voluntary
Participation in a Prison Literacy Program and Academic Achievement." Journal of
Correctional Education 44, no. 3 (September 1993): 134-138. (EJ 472 104)
Sacramento County Probation Department. Juris LIT Final Report. Sacramento, CA:
Author, 1994. (ED 378 363)
Shethar, A. "Literacy and 'Empowerment'? A Case Study of Literacy behind Bars."
Anthropology and Education Quarterly 24, no. 4 (December 1993): 357-372.
(EJ 478 702)
Sperazi, L. An Evaluation of the IBM PALS Program for the Massachusetts Board of
Library Commissioners. Newton Highlands, MA: Evaluation Research, 1990.
(ED 328 267)
Thomas, A. M. Opening Minds Behind Closed Doors. Victoria: John Howard Society of
British Columbia, 1992. (ED 355 416)
Developed with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S.
Department of Education, under Contract No. RR93002001.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position or policies of OERI or the Department.
Digests may be freely reproduced. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational