Redemption through Reading

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overcorwded prison

Overcrowding in a California Prison  Source:

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.

inmate education

Inmates participating in an adult education class.  Source:

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

Reuters. (2012, June 25). Reading offers Brazilian prisoners quicker escape. Reuters. Retrieved from  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 Price_of_Prisons_updated_version_072512.pdf


  1. Whilst of course supporting the right of everyone – in prison or not – to literacy and access to books I am concerned by the way such programmes legitimise prison in general and the need of prisoners for “redemption” in particular.

    To claim “Research has repeatedly found links between academic failure, crime, delinquency, and violence” is not only bad social science (causality/correlation) but is active participation in the pathologization of the poor and vulnerable. It effectively blames them for their incarceration ignoring structural inequalities and the CJS’s targeting of the powerless/economically marginalised.

  2. That claim is not bad social science, nor does it necessarily indicate a causative relationship. Likewise, it does not place blame or ignore structural inequality. Isn’t access to education, in fact, one of the structural inequalities that social scientists concern themselves with regarding the marginalized?

  3. I don’t think the implication of the blog was classicist in the sense of blaming the victims as much as it targeted the “punitive turn” as discussed by Jock Young, John Lea and others, I am not sure if the situation in Europe is similar, but in the United States we have seen a new and alarming trend of mass suspension and expulsions from the public school system (believe it or not even from pre-school programs). That creates a structural impediment which feeds the voracious appetite of our school-to-prison pipeline. Obviously mass incarceration is the problem and that can only be addressed by substantial structural social change (I can’t say what I really mean because of the provisions in the Patriot Act). In addition, the issue harkens back to the principle of “least eligibility” highlighted by Julia and Hy Schwendinger fifty years ago which seeks to punish by denying basic human rights in carceral settings.

  4. Upon reflection the wording of that sentence does leave something to be desired, however I agree with Carl’s point the claim does not indicate a casual relation but association. I completely agree that there are structural inequalities that are in the process of who ends up in the CJS, and also question the need for redemption. These are valid points; our goal with the piece was to highlight an innovative practice that is beneficial to prisoners without being exploitative.

  5. I agree with Annie that the wording may be an issue however the purpose of the piece was to draw attention to alternative practices within prisons. What intrigued us was that Brazil is willing to try new and innovative programs in hopes of reducing recidivism. Which leads to questioning why the US is so unwilling to try such programs. That is not to say some states aren’t trying but more questioning what is holding us back.

  6. I highlighted the most obvious example but my concern was with the whole thrust of the paper – that solutions were to be found in ‘better’ programmes in prisons. The reality is that the very structural inequalities that generate educational exclusion are the very same ones that drive mass incarceration. A correctional or positivist approach focused on making either prisons ‘better’ or prisoners ‘redeemed’ not only does not challenge these structural inequalities but ultimately legitimises them.

    There is value in studying other countries but this is very limited if your restrict your comparison to correctional techniques. It is far more profitable to locate such comparisons in the respective cultures, dominant ideologies and political economies of such countries.

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