Literacy levels among the U.S. prison population are generally lower than among the general population, with levels for various minority prison populations lower than for Caucasian inmates (Figure 1). The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy tested a nationwide sample of over 19,000 individuals aged 16 and older in the nation’s households and state and federal prisons. Results specific to the prison population are discussed in a recently released report from the National Center for Education Statistics: “Literacy Behind Bars.”
Table 1 shows the kinds of abilities tested, the range of scores associated with each of four performance levels—below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient—and the tasks associated with each level of competency. Figures 2 and 3 present comparisons between the general adult population and the prison population.
Average scores for the prison population fall within the basic level for all three measures of literacy, with sizeable percentages testing at the below basic level. Blacks and Hispanics, in general, scored less well on all measures (Figure 1).
The report analyzes data from the survey according to gender, age, level of formal education, level of parental education and first language. It also discusses literacy levels in the context of prison education programs, work opportunities, computer skills and library use.
The report also looks at literacy levels in conjunction with the formal educational levels of prison inmates. Inmates with a high school degree or its equivalent had higher scores on all three measures of literacy than those with lower levels of formal education.
Those inmates who had left school before achieving a high school diploma actually had higher average scores on all three measures of literacy than those in the general population with the same level of education. In addition, prison inmates with a GED or other high school equivalency certificate had higher average prose literacy scores than adults with the same type of degree in the general population.
Forty-three percent of prison inmates had achieved a high school diploma or its equivalent before the current incarceration. A further 19 percent had earned a high school equivalency degree during the current imprisonment, and 5 percent were enrolled in classes leading to such a degree.
Twenty-nine percent of inmates had participated in some sort of vocational training, but more inmates reported being on waiting lists for these types of programs than were employed. Those participating in vocational training measured higher for all three types of literacy.
Further information on the National Assessment for Adult Literacy and copies of the report discussed above are available on the website of the National Center for Education Statistics at http://nces.ed.gov/naal/.