Image: Tiago Pinheiro

It’s not ok if prisoners can’t read

Tomorrow is International Literacy Day. A group, which has higher rates of illiteracy than other sections of the population but is rarely discussed, is those in the correctional justice system.

In the 2016 GEM Report, we noted that more than 75% of convicted persons in Italy had not completed high school in 2001, while United Kingdom incarceration rates among men aged 21 to 25 were more than eight times higher for those with no qualifications than for those with some qualification. A recent newspaper article points out that half of Britain’s prisoners are functionally illiterate. Research conducted for the European Commission revealed that in the Netherlands, 27% of early school leavers were suspected of a crime compared to 7% of non-school leavers. In Ireland, early school leavers were significantly more likely to be convicted (46.6 out of 1,000) compared with those who achieved the Leaving Certificate (1.6 out of 1,000)). Between seven and sixteen per cent of the prisoners in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden in the late 2000s had not completed compulsory school. These startling statistics are concerning, as literacy skills can have a significant impact on a prisoner’s rehabilitation prospects.

There are significant logistical hurdles that must be overcome to provide education to those in the correctional justice system. Prisoners who have started a course in prison are often not able to finish it if they’re released in the meantime, and transfers between prisons can also severely affect prisoners’ learning and result in a loss of individual learning plans and assessment results. A study of prisoners in the United Kingdom showed that being transferred to another prison was the primary reason for a failure to complete a course. Sweden is leading the way in addressing this issue, by introducing distance learning in all Swedish prisons which means that teachers can teach students regardless of their physical location.

One program having success in tackling literacy in prisons is the Shannon Trust’s Turning Pages reading program in the United Kingdom. This is a peer-to-peer learning system that pairs inmates who can read with those who can’t. In a testament to the impact the program has made for the 6,000-odd prisoners involved as either mentors or learners, the Shannon Trust was recently awarded the Action for Equity Award from the London School of Economics (LSE).

Another example of a program that’s successfully providing essential literacy skills to inmates was noted in the 2012 GEM Report. Turkey’s Open High School program and Open Vocational High School program, which both began over 20 years ago, use ICT and face-to-face instruction to reach marginalized groups within the population, including prisoners. Overall graduation rates of 27% for the Open High School and 19% for the Open Vocational High School – for a total of 835,000 graduates – are an achievement for youth who would otherwise not have been able to receive a post-primary education.

Uruguay has introduced prison education programmes for young people and adults with the aim of improving the literacy skills of the inmate population. This is particularly critical given that 40% of prisoners have not completed primary education, and a further 31% had finished primary school but then left the formal education system. The program uses various formal and non-formal approaches, including literacy classes, workshops, theatre groups, and vocational training. In a nod to the program’s success, the percentage of the prison population engaged in education programs more than quadrupled over a three year period.

‘Second chance’ adult education models like these are also critically important because they help overcome some prisoners’ existing negative attitude about education. Many prisoners have negative previous experiences of education and, as the statistics above clearly illustrate, are likely to have dropped out of school early. The Irish Prison Education Service emphasised the importance of this factor in its 2003-2007 Strategy Statement for Prison Education, by declaring that one of its four aims was to “establish the appetite and capacity for lifelong learning”.

Inmates at the Juan Luis Vives School in Valparaiso Penitentiary Centre, Chile.

As we move towards SDG 4, and especially the literacy Target 4.6, it’s critical that we don’t overlook ostracized populations like those in prisons, especially given what we know about the relationship between education and reoffending, and education and violence in general. The 2016 GEM Report discussed in depth the positive effects that education can have on reducing violence and building more peaceful societies, and various research from around the world suggests that there is a strong relationship between education and a decreased likelihood of reoffending. A 2013 meta-analysis by the RAND Corporation, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, found that incarcerated people who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of reoffending than those who did not. Furthermore, education can be a critical factor in allowing prisoners to obtain meaningful employment, which reduces the risk of reoffending by between a third and a half.

What’s more, even beyond social and vocational utility, providing access to education for inmates is quite simply a human right and “a recognition of dignity that each person should be afforded”. Making education available to those in prisons is not only important but necessary.



  1. Golden opportunity for governments to improve the literacy statistics and in the meanwhile reduce the incarcerations if there is a causal effect as the article suggests. The costs to society should therefore drop. This must be an attractive proposition to even the densest bureaucrat

  2. Prisoners should have the right to educate their selves, @Dr. Darol Cavanagh rightly said that Govt. have golden opportunity to improve the literacy stats with and side by side it will aid a prisoner to become a good citizen after completing his/her imprisonment.

  3. Educations are for everyone. I really can’t why other prisons don’t allow their prisoners to read books. I’m happy and willing to donate educational books for prisons. Everyone has their right to read and be educated.

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