The Relationship Between Incarceration and Low Literacy

Incarceration Low Literacy

Politicians and journalists often claim prison planners use third grade reading scores to predict the number of future prison beds needed. While it has been found this claim is mostly urban myth, there is in fact a strong connection between early low literacy skills and our country’s exploding incarceration rates. Compelling statistics underscore this connection:

Early Signs in Adults                                                                                            

Pro Literacy

A low level of literacy is not a direct determinant for a person’s probability to be convicted on criminal charges, but correctional and judicial professionals have long recognized a connection between poor literacy, dropout rates, and crime. The educational level of the prison population differs significantly from that of the household population being over-represented with individuals having below average levels of education. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” Data supports that those without sufficient income earned by work are the most prone to crime. Paul Romero, a correction official once noted, “With legal means of succeeding in society narrowed, illiteracy is heavily implicated in the crimes landing many behind bars in the first place.”

The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” When inmates who left school before receiving a high school diploma where asked the main reason they dropped out of school, about one-third reported they lost interest or experienced academic difficulty.

Early Signs in Children

KidsAccording to a special report, Early Warning, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “…the process of dropping out begins long before high school. It stems from loss of interest in middle school, often triggered by retention in grade…and that, in a great many cases, is the result of not being able to read proficiently as early as fourth grade.”

Reading on grade-level by the end of third grade is one of the most critical milestones in education. Studies show that 74% of 3rd graders who read poorly still struggle in ninth grade, and third grade reading scores can predict a student’s likelihood to graduate high school. Donald Hernandez reported in Double Jeopardy, children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. While those with the lowest reading scores account for only a third of students, this group accounts for more than 63% of all children who do not graduate from high school.

Factors That Contribute to Third Grade Reading Proficiency

The connection of causes of many societal ills, including poverty, violence, crime, and incarceration in most instances correlate to high school completion rates and literacy skills education for primary grade students. There is an urgent national call for collaborative efforts to ensure children are prepared for college and career through achieving grade-level reading by the end of third grade. Warning Confirmed outlined the following factors effect third-grade reading success:

  • Readiness for school in terms of the child’s health, language development, social-emotional skills and participation in high-quality early care and learning programs.
  • Chronic absence from school must be mitigated.
  • Summer learning loss must be prevented.
  • Family-oriented stressors such as family mobility, hunger, housing insecurity and toxic stress should be addressed.
  • Quality of teaching the child experiences in home, community and school settings.

Education in Tennessee Prisons

  • Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) school system provides offenders with comprehensive academic programs, vocational programs, and library services to prepare offenders for the socioeconomic and occupational environment they will encounter upon their return to the community.
  • The adult basic education and high school equivalency (HSE) programs improve competency in basic learning skills, occupational aptitudes, and general reading/literacy levels.
  • In 2013, 618 HSE Certificates and 3,672 Vocational Certificates were earned in Tennessee prisons.
  • College programs leading to an associate’s degree are also offered
  • Vocational training is offered in: Automotive, Mechanical Technology, Barbering, Carpentry, Cosmetology, Construction, Culinary Arts, and HVAC & Refrigeration

 Education for Adults in the Community

Most low literate adults need to be connected to literacy education programs that assist them with developing the literacy skill necessary to obtain and keep gainful employment, as well as maintain positive lifestyles.

  • In community-based literacy programs there are more than 240,000 learners and 94,000 tutors nationwide
  • These programs provide instruction in basic literacy, GED prep, English, citizenship, job readiness, financial literacy, digital literacy, health literacy, drivers license prep, and other areas of study that interest learners.

Literacy Mid-South’s programs work to improve literacy outcomes for Mid-Southerners of all ages and backgrounds. Our work in the Third Grade Reading Collaborative Action Network directly addresses the need for early elementary literacy proficiency. Our Read Memphis Project has replicated our Adult Learning Program within the Shelby County Department of Corrections, in order to assist as many low literate incarcerated individuals as possible. Learn more about our Third Grade Reading Collaborative Action Network by clicking here. And if you’re interested in our Read Memphis Project, learn more about that by clicking here.

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