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Policy and Research Publications Online Reports

Prison Literacy: Implications for Program and Assessment Policy (1993)

Note: 
The text is approximately 7 typed pages.

Abstract: 
Editor's Note: The following synopsis is based on materials extracted directly from the document. America, already with far more of its people behind bars than in any other country and the prison population rising steadily, confronts a double problem: the majority of prison inmates are (by almost any definition) also insufficiently literate. A strong correlation exists between ordinary criminal behavior and educational insufficiency, so that the numbers of adjudicated persons who are inadequately literate will tend to be higher than in the rest of the population. Add to the general effects of educational disability the marginalizing factors of ethnicity, class, socio-economic deprivation, and other handicaps, and one has the formula for America's epidemic case of prison illiteracy. Historically, the situation in prison literacy is a 150-year-old narrative of reforming energies with uneven results, spotty application, and meager support. Even so, the effort to deliver literacy to inmates of America's federal and state prisons, reformatories, and city and county jails has generated a roster of noble names William Rogers, Jared Curtis, Galord Hubbells, Zebulon Brockway, E. C. Wines, Gideon Haynes, Homer Lane, Thomas Mott Osborne, Fred Nelles, and Austin MacCormick (among others) leading to today's growing guild of corrections experts, teachers, librarians, researchers, literacy volunteers, and other advocates of greater literacy for inmates for many very good reasons. The present scene is acted out before the backdrop of the social reforms during the Johnson Administration of the mid-1960s, the significant turning point for prison education in the second half of the 20th century. Despite even the ripening of legal and social opinion in favor of inmates greater rights to literacy and education since the Great Society, practice still lags far behind statute. The federal system and a few state systems are best- organized to deliver educational services to inmates, followed by most state systems, and the local jails bring up the rear. Because illiteracy and criminality are umbilically joined, it stands to reason that greater literacy would have a dampening effect on criminality. The result of research, on balance, seems to be that this, in fact, is the case: greater literacy is a way out of criminality, and improving literacy is a way of reducing criminal recidivism among the adjudicated. Despite a widespread perception that Nothing works, careful studies, and the review of studies by American and Canadian researchers, reveal that the Right kind of education in prison can statistically, though not predictably in individual cases, reduce recidivism and increase inmates chances for staying on the outside and living a more satisfying, profitable life after they have been released. By the Right kind of education, one does not mean education in prison premised on the penal mentality of those far too numerous in the correctional establishment who think that punishment of the law-breaker is the purpose of prison, and that security is the most important feature of a prison. Rather, one means growth in literacies that include moral education, democratic self-rule in the Just community, instruction in the humanities, with a strong appeal to the cognitive, delivered by means of andragogical instruction, in company with training in a variety of skills to enable the inmate to cope with the personal, sexual, familial, chemical, economic, vocational, and social problems of life, thereby to gain a realistic sense of ones individual worth as a human being. Prison education programs in their hundreds exist; various methods have been tried, some of which were successful; researchers have tallied statistics and made reports; and periodic reviews of most aspects of prison education have been registered enough so that one can begin to draw conclusions that some ways are better than others. One can predict, for example, that vocational education that is about meaningful, satisfying, and marketable labor, when it is accompanied by other kinds of learning as well, will prove beneficial; otherwise, it will not. One can also predict that privatized education run by educators rather than be correctionists will have better effects. And one can predict that the educational program in prisons where the human factor of antagonism among corrections professionals, educators, and inmates has been alleviated, will do better. One can, therefore, set down certain implications for a model literacy program in prisons and jails. An ideal program in prison literacy is, and ought to be, one that educates inmates broadly, is governed for the sake of the learners, that makes prison life more livable for all concerned, that is cost-effective, that improves the quality of life in the prison, that has a new-readers library, that makes appropriate use of educational technology, and that, therefore, typifies the essential rightness in a civilized society of allowing even criminals to take advantage of the curative and regenerative process of education. The results of study, and the review of studies, of prison education thus allows this increasingly professionalized discipline to engage in meta-critical reflection upon its own methods of self- analysis, to recognize the limits of previous research, to criticize the several means of assessment and evaluation now being employed, to undertake new and better approaches to assessment, and to erect for itself improved standards of assessment and evaluation. A final section on assessment in this study on assessment leads to a detailed checklist of questions, the most detailed protocol yet devised as a means to analysis of programmatic prison education. The Checklist of Questions at the end is for policymakers and researchers as well as for literacy providers, for it is an applied and pragmatic summary of most of the critical implications raised in this report. In an effort to make this information as accessible as possible to our intended audiences policymakers and legislators, corrections administrators, and educators in prisons and jails we have distilled the implications of research findings into questions (See Appendix A) to consider when studying the following: -- The effectiveness of a given prison-literacy program; -- The best policy to implement; -- The most helpful laws to pass; -- The best ways to set up and manage an effective literacy program inside; and -- The best ways to teach people in prison. No one institution is likely to answer yes to all the questions, or to be able to tackle all questions at once. However, our hope is that these distillations will help focus future directions in our correctional facilities so that they may be correctional and responsive to some of the most effective efforts in our country today. The questions are arranged topically so that readers may consider a single area at a time (technology, for example). Perhaps a useful approach would be for prison or jail administrative and educational personnel, ideally including representative inmates, to discuss a priority ranking of the questions for consideration. In this way, broad goals might be set, with focus on a number of specific goals to be achieved in the short term and reserving others for the longer term. Subsequent chapters provide the contexts from which the questions were derived. Although the book is essentially focused on programs and program assessment in prisons and jails, the early chapters provide background to the last two chapters which are specifically about programs and their assessment. The authors hope that veterans in correctional work will find these pages as useful as newcomers and others who may be searching for information and answers. There is plenty of work for all of us. This report examines the professional and research literature concerning the state of literacy instruction of adult inmates in correctional institutions in America to address the question: what are the most effective ways to deliver literacy instruction in prisons and in jails? The literature is abundant, the history long, the issues complex, the efforts and results mixed, and the human need great. In order to answer the literacy question, a variety of themes have been explored: -- Literacy, (re)habilitation, and recidivism; -- Social, economic, gender, and ethnic implications of the widespread illiteracy among educationally disadvantaged inmates; -- The history and practice of theoretical paradigms and styles of correctional education; and -- The varying effects of education, or of its lack, upon the adjudicated. Much prison-related research has been conducted by Canadians, and Canadian Thomas Townsend opens the conversation regarding the establishment of education in prisons and jails as a separate and specialized field. This report is an attempt to contribute to the discovery-for-advantage to which Townsend refers. Existing research, though neither exhaustive nor perfect, can inform practice to the advantage of the habilitation of the inmates and for everyone else concerned prison officials, educators, and tax- payers. Correctional educators have made enormous strides by addressing the staggering problem of prison illiteracy. Beyond literacy, though, correctional education has the potential to yield positive changes in offenders lives. We must now move on to discover, and take advantage of, this potential through informed research and practice. To consider prison education as only palliative is to ignore its rich potential to contribute substantively to the correctional agenda. To be rehabilitative, correctional education must be responsive to the particular learning needs of offenders, have content that focuses specifically on changing pro-criminal values, beliefs, and attitudes, and integrate its activities with other correctional treatment initiatives. The majority of offenders enter our correctional establishments with poor academic skills. Too little attention is given to why this is the case. In recent years, assessments of offenders have pointed to a high incidence of learning difficulties. Offenders also seem to differ markedly from non-offending populations in preferred learning styles; they favor an intense, hands-on approach rather than the more passive, visual methods practiced in our schools. These facts argue for a different teaching approach in a correctional setting than that offered in the community at large. The curriculum of most correctional education programs emphasizes basic skills to address illiteracy. Although mastery of these skills can serve as strong motivation for the individual learner, the correlation between illiteracy and criminality cannot be considered causal. Research showing improved reintegration of offenders who have completed an Adult Basic Education program is encouraging. The challenge for researchers is to identify which aspects of the program constitute the contributing influence. However, research is unlikely to point to any existing basic curriculum as a positive influence. The development of a specific curriculum that blends basic academic skills with material that stimulates social learning must remain a critical priority. Education in most correctional jurisdictions is a Stand alone activity, with little interaction with other areas of corrections. This isolation is reinforced in correctional systems that contract with local school districts or private schools. Even in settings where teachers are employees, corrections-specific training is generally not provided. Because of the lack of specialized services, prison teachers are usually forced to seek professional development in the outside teaching community and are disadvantaged in dealing with prison-specific problems. More recently, greater emphasis has been placed on coordinating the efforts of academic upgrading, vocational training, and prison industries. These efforts should be encouraged. Moreover, the educational program needs to be more closely integrated with programs on social skills, substance abuse, anger management and family violence. According to the most recent reports, the following details give some indication of the overall picture: the most up-to-date summary report in print that the authors were able to find confirmed the general impression that one gains from surveying previous reports, estimates, and local studies. Using a sixth- grade level as the standard for literacy, 50% of the adult inmates in U.S. prisons are illiterate. Using a 12th-grade level as the standard, 75% of inmates are illiterate, i.e., the illiteracy level of the prison population is approximately three times that of the general population (Ryan, 1990), and the numbers are even worse in some sections of the country where general educational levels are lower and class distinctions sharper (Martin, 1979 a & b). Even though the home, the church, and the society increasingly in ethnic, economic, and class breakdown must all take their share of the blame (Davidson, 1989; cf. Thompson & Doddler, 1986; Wiley & Conciatore, 1989), among the incarcerated, the inadequacy of American public-school education and its GED-style equivalents becomes patent. Schools are scrambling to become more of the solution and less of the problem (Mauers, 1974; Phillips & Kelly, 1979). Statistics published in 1976 are largely valid today: -- 75 to 90% of juvenile offenders have learning disabilities; -- Up to 50% of adult inmates are functionally illiterate; and -- Up to 90% of adult inmates are school drop-outs (Herschler, 1976). In 1979, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons estimated that approximately 50% of adult inmates in federal and state facilities could neither read nor write. At least 90% of all inmates had not completed high school, and the majority had less than an eighth-grade education. According to the Bureaus own 1972 policy, a sixth-grade reading level was required before inmates might be released, but the Bureaus policy was ahead of its practice. The demands of the Adult Education Act, under which most prison education programs were funded, that Functional literacy at the ABE level should be attained by inmates, were not being met. Most inmates lacked literacy sufficient to understand a newspaper, read a driver- instruction manual, grasp job instructions, balance a checkbook, or do tax returns (Pollack, 1979). The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, reported prison populations as follows in 1986 (Bessette, 1989, p. 36): -- 95.6% were males, 4.4% were females (There are more females now than there were then); -- 49.7% were Caucasian, 46.9% were African-American, 12.6% were Hispanic (There are more people of color now than there were then); -- 85.4% were between the ages of 18 and 39; -- 20.2% were veterans; -- 60.2% had children (Because there are more women now, there are more inmates who have the care of dependent children); -- 82.8% had been service workers, farm workers, crafts people, equipment operators, or laborers; and -- 57.5% had less than a 12th-grade education, with grade completion rates. The foregoing and subsequent statistics need to be understood in light of the three-tiered American structure of prisons. Federal prisons hold the least numbers, often provide more comfortable conditions, are harder to get into than other facilities for a narrower range of crimes, and are populated by white-collar criminals and others who are, for any number of reasons, the polar opposites of their demographic counterparts in state institutions. Local jails fall democratically between the two extremes, and they represent a cross-section of the local population. Thus, education statistics tend to be the worst in state institutions, and the best in federal institutions, with few reliable statistics available on local jails. If one premises an opinion about prison literacy solely on federal statistics, which are the most numerous, the picture will inevitably be rosier than is the general reality. In 1988, the Bureau published comparative figures for state prisons in 1979 and local jails in 1983 (U.S. Department of Justice, 1988). The Technical appendix to that report concluded with the still- valid statement that The level of education reached by jail and prison inmates was far below the national average (U.S. Department of Justice, 1988, p. 33).

 


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