Learning to Read Behind the Fence: The path to prison is often paved by illiteracy. Yet many prisoners aren’t being taught to read

About 15% of adults in Oregon prisons read below an eighth-grade level, an analysis by the Statesman Journal found. Nationwide, an estimated 70% or more of incarcerated people can’t read at the fourth-grade level.

It’s not clear whether Oregon prisoners are actually more literate since there is no state-by-state comparative data or federal oversight. Corrections officials could not explain why the Oregon numbers are so different than national surveys.

State law requires the majority of these prisoners take classes while incarcerated. Yet the Statesman found nearly half of Oregon inmates who qualify as low-level readers — those who read below an eighth-grade level — have never been enrolled. And funding and access to these programs are not prioritized.

This despite studies that show specifically helping the low-reader population could have a significant impact on the broader community.

Those who complete educational programs while in prison are less likely to return and are less likely to engage in violence during incarceration. U.S. Department of Justice studies also show the positive impact these programs have when formerly incarcerated individuals return to society, including a higher chance of being gainfully employed.

“A lot of these folks have been in the criminal justice system since they were young children,” criminal justice reform advocate Julianne Jackson of Salem said. “So, those cute little folks that we should have taught to read before? They’re adults now. And they still deserve that opportunity. They still deserve the opportunity to do better.”

This in-depth coverage was made possible via a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association. Read the full series, in English or Spanish, here. In addition to the main article, there is a secondary story on the K-12 connection and an explainer piece on how we made this project.

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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