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.


Let’s Talk About Adult Literacy

adult literacy

Hi reader! Thanks for stopping by. I heard that you had some questions about adult literacy, and specifically about the work we do around adult literacy. So let’s talk about it. We don’t necessarily think that you don’t know what literacy is, but there is a lot more to it than just the ability to read. So, without further ado, let’s talk about literacy.

Okay, I’m here. So, what is literacy, exactly?

Literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” This is a fancy way of saying that literacy is the ability to make sense of written words, and in our case, words that are written in English. Our country is full of words and an individual who is low literate will have a harder time making sense of written words than one who isn’t. Think about it: if you had difficulty with reading, everyday things like utility bills, instruction manuals, prescriptions, job applications and books of all shapes, sizes, and genres could be a blank slate for you.

Wait a minute. “Low literate”? You mean “illiterate” right?

You could say that. But we are a society that places a lot of value on the ability to read, and the descriptive term “illiterate,” in our view, has some pretty negative connotations. We don’t use it to describe people if we can help it.

Besides, research has proven that literacy isn’t a static value–that is to say, the days are behind us where we think about literacy as: a person either definitely can or definitely cannot read. Literacy is best measured on a continuum, and individuals who are low literate vary between the inability to understand the most basic of words to the ability to read at a level equivalent to a middle school student. Those are the people we’re helping, and according to our research, the majority of the people that we serve have the same amount of reading ability as an elementary school student. But that measurement still doesn’t account for the ability to do things like fill out a deposit slip, find the time of an event on a flyer, or perform other simple tasks, which many of our learners can do.

Another term that people use is “functionally illiterate.” You can learn more about that term by clicking this link.

So how do people end up low literate?

The reasons are many and varied, but there are some universal markers: people of specific racial/ethnic groups, people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and people whose first language is not English are more likely to be low literate than other groups of people. This is very much due to the fact that people from these groups are walking around with a weighted knapsack strapped to them, so to speak: the disadvantages that they face as a result of social marginalization makes educational achievement difficult, even if they try really, really hard.

However, even controlling for this, there is still no one concrete reason for low literacy in adults, and to categorize literacy ability as achievement is wrong of me: Many of these adults terminated their high school career before they completed it, but many still have high school diplomas, and some have even completed college courses.

Even though we have difficulty discussing the reasons why people have a hard time developing intermediate or advanced literacy skills, we are very certain on the factors that DO NOT result in low literacy for adults:

  • Laziness
  • Lack of Intelligence
  • Ancestry
  • Ethnicity
  • Innate Ability
What do illit–I’m sorry, low literate adults look like?

Like you and me! I’m not joking. The most recent statistics report that about 14% of individuals in the United States of America are unable to read at a basic level. That’s more than 30 million folks, split up among all kinds of ethnicities, genders, religions, and walks of life.

More than 100,000 of those people call the Mid-South their home. And they’re a varied bunch of people, any of whom you could be interacting with on a daily basis. We’ve assisted aspiring novelists, business owners, and scholars. At Literacy Mid-South, we recognize where our adult learners have been, but we also focus on where they want to go.

Okay, okay. I’m sold. Low literate adults need help. But how can I help? I’m just one person!

There are a few ways that you can help. Advocacy is important. Tell your friends the truth about what low literacy in adults looks like. Spread the word on the effect it has on people’s lives. Dispel myths, rumors, and misunderstandings about low literate people, and point people in the direction of information and assistance.

If you want to be more active, consider volunteering with Literacy Mid-South. The dedication, time, and energy of our volunteers allows us to directly assist low literate adults across the Mid-South. Tutors not only assist adult learners in directly improving their literacy skill, they also help learners create confidence in their ability to achieve. Even if you aren’t able to tutor an adult, you can help at Literacy Mid-South’s special events, which help foster a joy of reading among Mid-Southerners. You can click this link for more information on volunteering.

If you are someone who is constantly on the go and can’t dedicate time, you can always assist with a financial donation. Donations provide Literacy Mid-South with the flexibility it needs to provide top of the line instruction and training to tutors, as well as assisting with other programs that directly impact the literacy ability of adults in the Mid-South, such as our Read Memphis project. Click this link for more information on donating.

Wow, okay. That’s a lot of information, but I think I got it.

Cool! I’m glad you stopped by to chat. Thanks for being so open minded about this and remember, you can stop back by here anytime if you have more questions!