We Must Educate Prisoners

By Bell, Raymond | USA TODAY, January 1993 | Go to article overview

We Must Educate Prisoners


Bell, Raymond, USA TODAY


They require classes that lead to skills which can be parlayed into jobs upon their release. Otherwise, they invariably will revert to lives of crime.

ALMOST TWO decades ago, a cartoon appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer that depicted a prison guard talking to his warden and saying, "I don't know what things are coming to, Warden. Sixty percent of the inmates in this prison can't write a decent extortion note! " As we approach a new century, the prison population has grown at an alarming rate, but the educational level is still as woeful as it was 20 years ago.

Prisons are a growth industry, with 182 under construction. When completed, they will add some 67,350 beds to the current capacity at a cost of $2,800,000,000. Even given the proposed new construction that is on the drawing boards and will provide 89,000 more beds, the jails, prisons, and juvenile treatment centers of this country will be bursting at the seams.

In spite of what is written in the press about Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, the average inmate in the nation's correctional facilities is functionally illiterate, probably has a learning disability, never had a steady job, was a juvenile delinquent, used drugs and alcohol, and came from a dysfunctional home in which he or she was abused physically and/or sexually. They are products of an educational system that has failed to prepare them to be able to contribute to society. If an individual does not have the skills, values, and abilities to earn a living legally and acceptably, he or she most certainly will turn to illegal pursuits.

The findings of various research studies regarding such inmates' backgrounds--academic, vocational, and social--are consistent over time. It is clear that prisoners come from a culturally and educationally deprived environment. Academically, the average inmate has not attended school beyond the 10th grade, and, although the time in attendance appears to be on the increase, achievement has remained constant at just below the seventh-grade level. Of greater concern, perhaps, is that this lack of academic performance can be attributed to the fact that at least half of them have a specific learning disability, usually associated with visual or auditory perception, especially the latter.

The distribution of intelligence among prison populations shows the average IQ to be 86. That is 14 points, or one standard deviation, under the national mean. Approximately 15% of inmates score below 75 on the Wechsler Scale of Adult Intelligence-Revised. A score of 75 generally is considered to be the cutoff for identifying those who may be mentally retarded. This would suggest a substantially higher percentage of moderately retarded individuals in prisons than in the general population. Moreover, 70% of inmates never have had any formal preparation in a skill, trade, or profession. A similar percentage have no consistent work history prior to incarceration. More than two-thirds come from broken or dysfunctional homes in which stability, discipline, and moral development were inconsistent at best. About 70% of adult prisoners have been involved with the juvenile justice system, which has had questionable success in rehabilitation.

Drug and alcohol abuse among this population is well-documented. Also telling is the extent to which these prisoners, especially females, have been victims of physical and/or sexual abuse both as children and adults. In the process of collecting data for a national study, researchers found that every one of the records of the 178 female subjects--drawn at random from inmates in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington--showed such abuse!

Almost 60% of those in the nation's correctional facilities come from minority groups. This, coupled with the recent finding that 25% of all young black men either are in prison or on probation, raises serious questions about the socioeconomic conditions in general, as well as the quality and availability of education and the application of justice, in minority communities. …

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