Literacy and Corrections | Littératie et services correctionnels

Correctional volunteer literacy tutors in Ontario | Tuteurs bénévoles en alphabétisation et services correctionnels en Ontario

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Literacy and Corrections

In general, literacy deficits are a significant problem in a correctional population. The key impact of these deficits is that poor ability to read, write and perform basic math hinder an offender’s ability to acquire and maintain employment and are related to recidivism both in Canada and internationally.


What the Research Says

According to US data, studies have shown prison education programs significantly reduce crime. Once correctional education participants are released, they are about 10– 20% less likely to reoffend than the average released prisoner (Bazos & Hausman, 2004; Grogger, 1998; Lochner & Moretti, 2002). This is largely the result of increased cognitive skills associated with increased income and increased levels of income are associated with decreased crime. Further, the US National Adult Literacy Survey showed approximately 67.5% of the incarcerated population functions at the two lowest levels of literacy, compared to 47% of the household population.

In a 1998 UK study, Literacy Changes Lives, 60% of offenders had problems with literacy and 40% had severe literacy problems. Further, 80% of prisoners had writing skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old child; the equivalent figure for reading was 50%. Other UK studies have shown a significant connection between recidivism and low levels of literacy, basic skills and employment (Hudson et al., 2001). Recent data indicates that courses teaching reading skills have an average effect on reducing reoffending by 6%, and the best interventions can produce 14% reductions (Lipton, 1999).

For Correctional Service Canada (CSC), approximately 64% of offenders have not completed their high school diploma, including 30% who have not completed grade eight. Many offenders have been affected negatively by past school experiences due to fear or failure, but upon commencement of studies, the success rate for retention and advancement was positive.

In 1999, Statistics Canada conducted a detailed snapshot study of inmates in Canada. For Ontario, they found that 21% of those incarcerated had a grade nine education or less, compared to 15% of adults in Ontario. Almost another one-half (48%) had grade 10 or 11, and only 30% had grade 12 or higher.

In Ontario, studies are consistent with the above information and indicate that approximately 30 to 40% of offenders have low literacy levels and many adults who come into conflict with the law read below a third grade level.

The above information points to the need for literacy programming for an offender population to address literacy issues and have an impact on recidivism.


Impact of Poor Literacy Skills

Acquiring literacy skills is important for incarcerated inmates. They must fill out forms, make requestsin writing and use letters to communicate with the outside world. Some inmate work activities require literacy skills. Additionally, reading is one way to spend time productively when in custody.

For offenders under community supervision, literacy skills are necessary to compete for employment opportunities and to achieve success at work and in everyday life.

Further, in order to impact recidivism, effective correctional rehabilitative programs rely on a cognitive-behaviour approach to address those factors bringing someone into conflict with the law. This generally requires some reading, critical thinking skills, problem solving, etc., all of which require basic literacy skills. When literacy levels are low, the inmate or offender has difficulty benefiting from rehabilitative programming.


Literacy Programming in a Correctional Environment

There are a number of factors affecting the provision of literacy programming in corrections.  Over the past 10 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of inmates remanded into custody compared to the number sentenced. This is occurring across Canada and has led to significant changes in correctional populations, programming and education.

In general, providing literacy programming in correctional institutions is different than providing literacy tutoring in the community. Inmates are often in custody for short periods of time, making traditional literacy programming difficult to administer. Time to work with a learner in an Ontario correctional institution can be from a few days to months but more likely around two months. If they are on remand, they may be released after a few days or weeks – the time frame is usually uncertain.

While in custody, inmates do not have access to online literacy programming and there are limited numbers of literacy instructors available. When these inmates are released to the community, they may not have had sufficient time to start to address literacy issues. However, for those under community supervision, there is a longer time frame available.

As a result, the ministry’s focus for literacy programming in institutions is using volunteer literacy tutors who provide a quick assessment of the learner’s needs, develop a learning plan, and provide information on literacy services for when the inmate is released. For those under community supervision, assistance with referral to community and online resources is provided. Still, for some offenders, their offences and their specific needs make individual tutoring more effective.

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