An estimated 20 percent of the adult population in the US is functionally illiterate. That figure SKYROCKETS to over 60 percent when you examine the literacy rates of the inmate population in jails and prisons across the country. And even more appalling is the fact that over 85 percent of juvenile offenders have literacy issues.
Considering that illiteracy commonly leads to lengthy and repeated bouts of unemployment (over 75 percent of unemployed adults have some problems with reading and writing) the low rate of literacy among the inmate population is a recipe for explosive recidivism rates. After all, if an ex-prisoner is unable to find or keep a job due to literacy issues, where else can he turn but back to the behaviors that landed him in jail in the first place?
Although a lot of people take the "lock them up and throw away the key" attitude toward prisoners, and would rather REDUCE the services available to prisoners, there is PROOF that literacy programs in prison CAN and DO help reduce the rates of recidivism, and can lead to an overall reduction in incarceration rates.
A comprehensive study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the research arm of the Washington Legislature, found that general education programs reduced the recidivism rate by 7 percent and vocational programs by 9 percent, among the best records of in-prison programs.The academic and vocational programs cost the state about $1,000 a year per inmate but, the study concluded, vocational education produced a net benefit to the state of $13,738 per participant, and the educational programs $10,669 per inmate, in the form of lower crime rates, fewer victims and less criminal justice spending. Source
The US spends $40 billion annually on incarceration and less than 2 percent of that goes towards educating prisoners. Prisons need to find innovative ways to implement literacy programs using the resources they are given.
Inmates at the New Jersey State Prison took matters into their own hands and created the L.I.F.E. (Learning is For Everyone) program, which was documented in the film How do you Spell Murder?" In this innovative program, inmates are the managers and are supported by volunteers from the community. Each inmate volunteer is certified by Literacy Volunteers of America and learns the skills necessary to teach adult literacy. They are paired up with a student inmate who is in need of literacy education services.
Many of the students in the L.I.F.E. program share similar stories. Undiagnosed learning disabilities. Frustration and humiliation in public schools. Held back time and time again, or, alternately, promoted without being prepared for the next level. Almost all are high school drop outs. Most were barely able to comprehend the legal documents involved in procedures against them that led to their incarceration. In fact, in one case, the murder conviction of a student was reversed when it was discovered that he had an undiagnosed learning disability and was unable to comprehend the confession he had signed.
So far the L.I.F.E. program has 46 tutors, has taught 236 men to read, and has helped 52 men receive their GED. And, as an added benefit, the students in the program have been able to learn enough skills to write and receive letters from home, thus strengthening their connections with family and community.
In addition to the L.I.F.E. program, the New Jersey State Prison has a program called Prose and Cons, a poetry workshop under the guidance of community volunteer Bill Carhart. The participants in this program do not have the same issues with illiteracy as those in the L.I.F.E. program, although a new poetry workshop has been started for L.I.F.E. program participants as well.
The L.I.F.E. program can serve as an example of a successful, inmate run, literacy program. With reduction in recidivism rates proven to be caused by educational programs in prisons, it is my hope that such services will be offered to all inmates across the country. Educating prisoners can only bring out positive results, and I believe that the investment is well worth the returns.