Overcrowding in a California Prison Source: www.askaninmate.com
Lee and Stohr (2012) suggest correctional programming does not need to be focused solely on the goal of reducing recidivism, that there is value and merit to other goals within correctional institutions such as better health; stress reduction; education and training; and improving positive coping mechanisms. Therefore, as long as people are being incarcerated there should be interest in programming that increases the quality of life while incarcerated.
Despite often being referred to as “medieval” and brutal, Brazil has created several programs that improve the standard of living within their prison walls. A particularly interesting program entitled ‘Redemption through Reading’ was implemented, in June 2013, receiving attention from news sources across the globe as well as social media. The purpose of the program is to increase the literacy rate of inmates in federal prisons, where 70% of the prison population had not completed fundamental education and about 10.5% were classified as illiterate (Silva, 2009). In this program inmates may select a book from an approved list that includes scientific texts, philosophical texts, and literary classics. After selecting a text from the approved list, an inmate has 4 weeks to read the book and write a report (Reuters, 2013). This report must demonstrate the inmate has not only read the book, but must show a correct use of paragraphs, be free of errors, use margins correctly, and be legible (Reilly, 2012). An inmate can reduce his or her sentence by 4 days, not to exceed 48 days a year, for each book read with a satisfactorily completed report.
Applying the idea of this program to US prisons could prove fruitful in many ways. Increasing literacy rates among inmates affects not only the inmates, but also their families, and community. Research has repeatedly found links between academic failure, crime, delinquency, and violence. Attempts at increasing the literacy rates in prison can increase inmates’ self-esteem and their willingness to participate in the community, while participating in community activities can lead to a greater level of social cohesion within the community itself.
Inmates participating in an adult education class. Source: www.prisonphotography.org
Approximately 46.5% of inmates in American prisons don’t have a high school diploma and few inmates report receiving help with literacy while incarcerated (ProLiteracy America, 2003). However, it is integral for those seeking employment to be literate and have a high school diploma. A study of inmates in Virginia, for example, found that of those inmates who participated in prison education programs, only 20% were reincarcerated (ProLiteracy America, 2003). Therefore, it appears that educational programming helps to increase an inmate’s opportunities for legitimate jobs, while simultaneously reducing recidivism – both of which are beneficial to the community.
The National Institution of Literacy estimates that 43% of adults living in poverty have low literacy skills and those with literacy problems are more likely to receive welfare (ProLiteracy America 2003). Therefore, by increasing the literacy rates of inmates we could help increase their chances of finding employment and gaining economic self-sufficiency. ProLiteracy America (2003) quoting Marcia Hohn (1995) also provides a link between health and literacy, “recent studies have found extensive evidence that low literacy, poor health, and early death are inexorably linked” (p. 13). Low literacy levels can also affect healthcare expenditures. The National Academy on an Aging Society estimates health expenditures for those with low literacy levels to be around $73 billion annually (ProLiteracy America, 2003, pg. 20). By lowering these expenses we could possibly lower health care costs for everyone, while simultaneously improving prisoner health.
There are also societal benefits or financial benefits (if you are trying to convince someone who is indifferent to the institutional conditions of prisoners). The potential cost savings is substantial using the same ratio that Brazil uses for their incentive. According to the PEW charitable trust and the VERA institute (2012), in the state of Virginia the average annual cost of incarceration per inmate is $25,129, which translates approximately to $68.85 daily. At the rate of a 4-day reduction in sentence, each book read with a satisfactorily completed report is roughly a $275 reduction in costs. Therefore, if an inmate were to complete the maximum of 12 books a year it could translate into a savings of $3,300 a year. The average daily population of Virginia prisons is 29,792 persons (Vera Institute 2012). Even if only 1% of inmates were to participate in such a program the potential cost savings could be as much as $981,525.60. Although this is nearly one million dollars, it is less than half of 1% of the annual budget for the Virginia Department of Corrections (Vera Institute 2012). However, it is a small way to begin to tackle the budgetary crisis of correctional spending.
Anne Lee, Doctoral Candidate &
Christle Rowe, Doctoral Student
Old Dominion University
Lee, L. C., & Stohr, M. K. (2012). A critique and qualified defense of “correctional quackery”. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 28(1), 96-112.
ProLiteracy America. (2003) US Adult Literacy Programs: Making a Difference. A Review of Research on Positive Outcomes Achieved by Literacy Programs and the People They Serve. U.S. Programs Division of ProLiteracy Worldwide.
Reilly, J. (2012, June 26). Prisoners in Brazilian jail will get four days off their sentence for every book they read. Daily Mail UK. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2164978/Prisoners-Brazilian-jail-days-sentence-book-read.html
Reuters. (2012, June 25). Reading offers Brazilian prisoners quicker escape. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/25/us-brazil-prison- reading-idUSBRE85O0WR20120625
Silva, F. (2009). Education for All and the Dream of an Alternative Prison Policy in Brazil. Convergence, 42(2), 187-211
Vera Institute. (2012). The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers. Retrieved from http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/ Price_of_Prisons_updated_version_072512.pdf