Prison Literacy Programs
"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 reincarcerated (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 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...