Illiteracy and Incarceration: The Indisputable Link

Boys who drop out of school prior to high school graduation are more than three times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers who graduated.  A whopping one in ten male high school dropouts (or one in four African American dropouts) is in jail or juvenile detention, as compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates (Dillon, 2009).

While it is oversimplistic to conclude that future criminal activity is directly and solely attributable to weak reading skills, or that every (or even most) student(s) who struggle with reading will wind up in jail, the link between literacy and criminal activity is indisputable.  Poor academic performance – due to either instructional or socioeconomic factors, or specific learning disabilities – have been found to be among the greatest factors contributing to adolescents dropping out of school (Hammond, Linton, Smink, & Drew, 2007).  In fact, many states are doing prison capacity planning based on 3rd grade illiteracy rates – long considered to be one of the greatest predictors of future criminal activity (The Imprisonment of America, 2010).  

The link between illiteracy and criminal activity is also evidenced by the impact innovative prison-based academic programs are having on the future behavior of inmates.  Inmates participating in literacy programs have been found to be significantly less likely return to criminal activity following their release.  One major success story is the Point of the Mountain prison in Utah, where inmates are given the opportunity to attend a literacy program at the publicly run South Park Academy. 

Video Courtesy of


In addition to teaching critical literacy and language skills, the program offers a mentoring program whereby inmates serve as tutors to other inmates.  The results have been nothing less than astounding, with those completing higher grade levels tending to re-offend less; in fact, at the time of this video, the prison’s recidivism rate for inmates was only 14 percent, versus 60 percent nationally.  Moreover, the benefits of the Tutoring Program extend to the inmate-tutors as well, as they learn about positive self-satisfaction and the benefits that come through helping others’ succeed (Utah Department of Corrections, 2010).


Inmates in the Utah Department of Corrections' Literacy Program at South Park Academy



Dillon, S. (2009, October 8). Study Finds High Rate of Imprisonment Among Dropouts . Retrieved February 3, 2011, from The New York Times:

Hammond, C., Linton, D., Smink, J., & Drew, S. (2007). Dropout Risk Factors and Exemplary Programs. Retrieved February 3, 2011, from All About Adolescent Literacy:

The Imprisonment of America. (2010). Retrieved February 4, 2011, from Literacy Alert:

Utah Department of Corrections. (2010). Educational Opportunities: Utah State Prison. Retrieved February 1, 2011, from Inmate Programs — Rehabilitation, Education & Employment :

Wimmer, N. (2010, April 26). Illiteracy is strong indicator of future incarceration. Retrieved February 1, 2011, from KSL Newsradio:

This entry was posted by sknapp44 on Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 at 11:21 pm and is filed under Ramifications of Illiteracy . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Marissa says:


    Incarceration and illiteracy have been a problem throughout out history. After reading your blog and researching a little bit on the topic, I found an article by Dr. Kenneth Mentor of the University of North Carolina and he writes “Millions of individuals are housed in correctional facilities. Literacy skills are important to these individuals and can aid in the successful functioning of the institutions. Many prison jobs require literacy skills and inmates are often required to fill out forms to make requests. Reading and writing provide productive options for passing time while in prison. Letters to family and friends are a vital link to the outside world. Literacy skills are also important for those who will leave prison and attempt to reintegrate into the community. Jobs, continued education, and many social opportunities depend on the ability to read and write – regardless of whether an individual is in prison” ( With all of the benefits of educating the incarcerated, I am shocked to see that a lot of Federal aid has been revoked. Some systems have found ways to still offer literacy services to their inmates and many use, like you mentioned, graduates of literacy programs to work as tutors. By continuing such programs as these, we can erase some of the educational divide that exists in this country and lessen crime rates.

    As a high school educator, I have always wanted to know more about teens in the system. Out of curiosity, what are the statistics of teenage girls? I found this interesting non-profit that works with incarcerated NYC teens. The link to their site is It seems as though that a little initiative can go a long way. I look forward to your future posts.

    • eacmike says:

      Hi Sheryl,

      Sorry it took so long to view your site. Illiteracy is a problem for prisons but also prisons are filled with people challenged by mental illnesses. I know an imamte in Arkansas that works to not only teach new immates how to read, he teaches the interested ones how to translate Braille. Sometimes it takes action by peers to make a difference.


  2. Jamie says:

    Hi Sheryl,

    Your post is very powerful and moving. The low educational levels of inmates are an unfortunate fact that we need to continue to research. I looked up a few facts from Florida statistics on
    and they state that “75 % of America’s inmates are high school drop outs”.
    I also found on the same site that:
    • The average reading level of prison inmates is very low: below the 5th grade in one study and below the 8th grade in another study.
    • About 67% of prison inmates cannot write a brief letter explaining a billing error, read a map, or understand a bus schedule.
    • 9% of all prisoners with low literacy skills receive literacy training while in prison.

    These facts are very disheartening to know that the inmates in some cases are not receiving the resources to improve their literacy skills. One interesting find that I think supports the fact we need to improve programs for incarcerated individuals to receive more opportunities to obtain increased levels of literacy is from the source According to The Oklahoma Literacy Resource Office “Various studies have found that education diminishes the rate of recidivism. A study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons concluded that ‘the more actively the inmates successfully participated in prison education programs, the less likely they were to recidivate’.” If we want the amount of repeat offenders to diminish, then inmates should be provided with educational resources to reinvent who they are and give them a chance not continue in the same pattern that they were in before they went to prison.

    You have touched upon an important subject that needs to be addressed. I think the video you posted gives hope to those that are incarcerated and want to have a better life when their sentence is up.

  3. Chris says:


    You have chosen a very interesting topic to post about. It is great that while folks are incarcerated they are actually doing something productive instead of just waiting to be released. I did a quick search on google to see what types of educational benefits were afforded to folks while they are incarcerated and I was surprised at the number of options. One of the more successful programs was the GED program, “Six thousand and eighty-nine Federal prison inmates received GEDs in 2007, more than a five hundred increase from 2006.” ( This is an encouraging trend.

    I hear on the news every once in a while about prisons being overcrowded and I wonder if some of the funds for programs such as literacy education and GED will eventually cut in order to hire more prison staff. Something else that came to mind was if these programs are proving successful why not try and implement similar programs in our schools?

    Great topic and I can’t wait to read others comments.

  4. eacmike says:

    I had a chance meeting with someone incarcerated that started his own Braille translating business while in prison. He taught himself how to read Braille and teaches willing and motivated younger inmates the trade. From what I understnd, they translate for several state educational agencies. Several inmates. upon their release, went on to work for his business on the outside. What a story!

  5. Crystal says:

    Thank you for publishing such a powerful story!

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