Prison Literacy Project

In the early 2000’s, LDA-IA spearheaded a project to improve the literacy skills of incarcerated individuals in Iowa.

“I’ve always assumed that the ability to read was something that was automatic for each and every person. I’ve heard of individuals not being able to read, however since I had never met anyone who couldn’t, I assumed that everyone could. This may sound a little naïve but this is what I’ve subconsciously always believed. I’ve never considered myself smarter than anyone else, so I assumed that everyone could read and comprehend just as well as I. I’ve now come to realize that this couldn’t be further than the truth.”

-from “My Point of View” written by prison inmate tutor E.M.

Literacy is a foundation for life. LDA-IA believes that incarcerated women and men with learning disabilities want to invest in their in their lives by improving their literacy skills. They want to re–enter society better prepared to be productive employees and  to take active, positive roles as parents, family members and responsible citizens. Improved literacy is one vital factor that will help break vicious cycles of low achievement, poverty, abuse and disenfranchisement.

Research indicates that 50% to 70% of prison residents have a significant reading deficit. A very high number of those with reading problems have a learning disability. Further, research indicates that education programs that produce academic improvement reduce recidivism, save money and improve chances to be employed.

About the Project
  • The project first began at the women’s prison in Mitchellville. Anne Murr, former director of Drake University’s Adult Literacy Center, coordinated the program. Due to funding loss, the program was discontinued in Mitchellville.
  • In 2005, the project was launched at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility and expanded in 2012 to the Correctional Facility in Clarinda.
  • Instruction is done through the state’s Correctional Education system, which provides adult basic education and GED instruction. In order to pass the GED, a student must have a reading level of at least 9th grade. Students who read below that level receive literacy instruction and students below 6th-grade level are eligible for the Wilson Reading program.
  • The Wilson Reading Program is a research-based, intensive phonics program that is sequentially taught, individualized, interactive and multi-sensory. Each student advances at his or her own pace. By focusing on total word construction, it allows students the skills necessary to decode words for better reading and spelling. The program was originally written for adults with dyslexia and is now widely used with students of all ages.
  • In each facility, GED and Literacy staff were trained in the Wilson reading method. Program materials and supplies were purchased; these expenses were funded by LDA-IA.
  • Prison residents are selected and trained as tutors and then matched to other residents needing instruction. Each tutor assigned to specific students. Each tutoring session is about 45 minutes to one hour in length, held Monday through Friday. For the lower level readers, tutors work one-on-one or with no more than two in a group.
  • Results have been extremely promising; the average rise in reading levels over three months is two grade levels.

 Did you know?
  • $962 per prisoner invested in academic education can save $5,306 in criminal justice costs.
    Aos, Miller, and Drake, 2006
  • Any education while incarcerated reduces the chance of returning to prison—up to 20% less than those who did not attend school while incarcerated—and …every dollar spent on education returns more than two dollars to the citizens of these states.
    Three State Recidivism Study, 2001
  • One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while the same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes.
    UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, 2004