ERIC Identifier: ED383859
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Prison Literacy Programs. ERIC Digest No. 159.
"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
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 generally did less well on the
prose, document, and quantitative scales, but on some literacy items did as well
or better than the nonprison 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 (Paul 1991).
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 reimprisonment (Porporino and Robinson 1992). But Sacramento County's
(1994) literacy program caused no significant reduction despite academic gains.
Problems with 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 postrelease
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 inmates, staff); and
(3) postrelease (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.
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