Literacy and Rehabilitation

According to the Department of Education, so far as federal prisons are intended as places of rehabilitation, literacy education must be part of that rehabilitation.1 Within this statement, the acknowledgement of how education and literacy intermingle with social issues related to poverty, crime, inequality and rehabilitation is rather explicit. The truth of the matter is that prison itself does not exist simply to house criminals: if that were the case, we would never let them out, because the goal at that point would be a “pure” sense of punishment based on isolation and confinement within a violent and degrading situation, a revenge fantasy that forgoes the notion of rehabilitation to impose simple and direct discipline. By creating a space that houses criminals, with the understanding that they will at some point work their way back into society, we assume that the prison itself is a rehabilitating force.

But the complexity of the question of rehabilitation contradicts a general consensus about how to deal with prisoners as transgressors against society. In order to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes, if that is our goal (and I understand that this is not always the case), the prison system has to be a place not only punitive measures but also of constructive programs. As it is, less money is spent on drug rehab and educational programs than is required for our growing inmate population.2 This fact alone suggests the contradictory question of punishment and rehabilitation.

All this aside,  if and when an inmate leaves prison with the prospect of integrating back into society, the question I ask is how to facilitate that. Education and literacy seem to be one of these way. As argued by Arthur Waxler of the University of Dartmouth, inmates who graduate from his Changing Lives Through Literature literacy program have a better chance of remaining out of prison once released.3 Other than giving inmates some tools with which to integrate back into a working environment, literacy education gives inmates better opportunities to communicate with others in ways that do not repeat past histories of anger and violence. These inmates now also have more constructive ways with which to reflect upon themselves and their actions, as well as the world around them.

This is not a stop-gap solution for prison problems. But it is a fact that the populations of prisons are overwhelmingly illiterate and under-educated, and increasingly so.4 Providing educational programs for prisoners within prisons and for released inmates looking for a way to break out of a struggle with crime and poverty is one of the necessary responsibilities of a system that claims to be interested in rehabilitation. To not focus time and effort on these types of programs seems contrary to that message.

1. “Correctional Education.” Office of Vocational and Adult Education, US Department of Education Last Modified March 29, 2013. Accessed March 29, 2013.
2. Riggs, Mike. “Four Horrifying Facts About Our Overcrowded Federal Prison System.” October 26, 2012. Accessed March 20, 2013.
3. “Literacy Behind Bars.” Suffolk University College of Arts and Sciences April 13, 2010. Accessed March 23, 2013.
4. “Correctional Education.”


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