The State of Our Schools – Lacking literacy: Poor readers populate state’s prisons

By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal

its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the fourth installment of a five-day look at the state of literacy education in Mississippi. The fourth installment examines the connection between poor literacy and incarceration. Thursday’s concluding installment looks at the broader issue of adult illiteracy.
Click here to view the entire series

Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation.
Each inmate admitted to a Mississippi detention facility is different, but state Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps says most of them have two things in common – a dependency on drugs or alcohol and an inability to read past a middle-school level.
The average Mississippi Department of Corrections inmate reads on a sixth-grade level when admitted to a corrections facility. Half of the state’s inmates never finished high school.
Epps said the commonly heard maxim that prison cells can be built based on a state’s literacy rates at third grade isn’t entirely true but it’s close.
“I absolutely believe that someone who is illiterate has a better chance of being an inmate – they are coming in on a sixth-grade reading, writing and arithmetic level,” he said. “We don’t see a lot coming in our system with a Bachelor of Science or arts or a master’s or Ph.D.”
Epps said the reason people with lower literacy levels are more susceptible to criminal behavior is the lack of opportunity they have.
“There are individuals I’m aware of with degrees who are having trouble finding jobs,” he said. “If a person at the sixth-grade level doesn’t have a GED or high school diploma, their (lower) quality of life is probably going to lead to criminal activity and they’ll probably get in trouble.”
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy publishes a study each decade comparing literacy of incarcerated adults to literacy of adults not in the prison system.
The 2003 Literacy Behind Bars study, the latest available, found that adults living in prison had significantly lower literacy scores in prose, document and quantitative reading than adults living in households, especially when it comes to quantitative literacy.
In prison, 39 percent of the surveyed population was below basic quantitative reading levels, meaning they couldn’t compare two prices using subtraction or calculate a weekly salary for a job based on hourly wages.
Average prison populations scored at or barely above basic literacy levels for each category while household populations scored at or above the intermediate levels.
Epps said these statistics are troubling in Mississippi.
“I’ve been here my whole life, born and raised in Mississippi for 52 years,” Epps said. “I love my state and if anybody tries to talk about it I get on them. But, we live in a state that is 37 percent African-American and as I talk to you (African-Americans) make up 65 percent of the incarcerated population. I think because we, in Mississippi, lead the nation in teenage pregnancy and … in unwed parents – I think we’re lacking in taking responsibility in raising our kids.”

In the Lee County Juvenile Correctional Center, 108 students were served from September 2012 through January 2013. The average reading level of those students was equivalent to just over fourth grade. The center serves students from the sixth grade through post high school.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said the added structure the detention center offers is a benefit to the students.
“I think when you see higher education and reading levels in a home it’s because there is someone who is giving the structure,” he said. “That’s all we’re offering, a structured environment and I think that’s where you see the difference and the importance.”
Once admitted to the Lee County Juvenile Detention Center, Johnson said he thinks students perform better.
Based on the 241 students served during the 2011 school year, 88 percent of the students earned school credit and 46 percent were promoted to the next grade level. Of the 11 seniors that were detained, eight graduated from high school.
Epps said a student may fall behind or drop out of school, but once he becomes an inmate he doesn’t get a choice.
“If you’re classified to go to school, you’re going to go to school,” he said. “Our inmates may say, ‘Commissioner, I’m not going to school,’ and we’ll write them up and after so many write ups they go to a single cell by themselves for 23 hours a day. Regular school teachers can’t do that.”
Epps and his staff take advantage of their captive audience. There are 3,798 slots for inmates to go to school and 2,370 slots for inmates to receive drug rehabilitation.
He said in 2011, the department had 682 students get GEDs, 519 get vocational certificates and 2,569 graduated from drug rehab.
“We did a study with Mississippi State a couple of years ago that showed our inmates maintain continued employment after release longer than a civilian,” he said. “That’s why I know we’re making a difference day-by-day.”
The recidivism rate in Mississippi is the lowest in the country at 27 percent, compared to the national average of 52 percent and he attributes that to the education and rehabilitation programs offered.

Epps said there’s no single solution to lowering the state’s incarceration rates.
“We’ve got to continue to do what we’re doing but while we’re doing that we have to do several other things,” he said.
“We have to lower teenage pregnancy, we cannot continue to be the number one on this. We have to lower the number of unwed parents. We have to continue to preach to parents it’s their job to raise their kids. While that’s going on let’s go back to kindergarten and early childhood education and make sure kids can read before we pass them onto the next level.”
He also said the state needs to offer more non-incarceration alternatives for non-violent offenders.
“I’m embarrassed that we’re number two in incarceration,” he said. “Not only do we lock up more people than 48 other states, we give them longer sentences. It’s my belief that we can do a better job on that and use some corrections money on early childhood education.”
Epps said one way to reduce corrections spending is through the state’s drug court program. The program requires the offenders to pay for the expenses while maintaining a job and taking drug tests.
He said helping to correct behavior for non-violent offenders instead of sending them straight to the state penitentiary at Parchman, where it costs $41.51 to house an inmate per day, would save money that could go to early childhood education.
In “Unlocking America,” the JFA Institute argues, “The overuse of incarceration, along with the mistaken justifications that have supported this policy, have corrupted and compromised our criminal justice policies and paralyzed efforts to reform them. The net result is an expensive system that relies much too heavily on imprisonment, is increasingly ineffective and diverts large sums of taxpayers’ money from more effective crime control strategies.”
The study cites a finding from “Diverting Children from a Life of Crime” that says a $1 million investment in disadvantaged students to graduate from high school would result in a reduction of 258 crimes per year where prisons generally deter 60 crimes a year.
In Mississippi, keeping 258 criminals out of state prisons for a year would save $3,908,996.70 – money that Epps said could then be reinvested in disadvantaged students.

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