Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level, noting: “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure.”
That’s bad news for inmates because many of them, including those in New Mexico, will get out lacking skills for decent jobs, and plenty are destined to repeat offend, said Morgen Jaco, director of the Reentry Division for the New Mexico Corrections Department.
And it’s bad news for the public because “they’re going to be your neighbors,” she said.
But there is promise, Jaco said.
Basic education has been proven to reduce recidivism. And under New Mexico statute, most inmates sentenced to between 18 months and 10 years and who enter prison without a diploma or a high school equivalency certification, must enroll in adult education programs.
There are about 6,300 inmates at New Mexico’s 10 prisons, and about 30% of that population is enrolled in some sort of educational programming. That might include basic adult education, high school equivalency preparation, “cognitive” or behavior modification programs, classes on reentry and family reunification, and various post-secondary and career technical classes, said Jaco.
“Literacy is a lot more than just reading and writing, which is the general definition,” she said. “When we’re trying to release individuals back into the community in a successful way, we also have to make sure that they’re financially literate, for example, so we provide money management classes and budgeting courses. We have to make sure they’re socially literate, and some of that comes just from working with others and having communication with outside agencies and different stakeholders. They might be able to read, but if they can’t function once released, that’s a whole different issue.”
But the reading component is crucial. There is nothing new about the connections between low literacy, underemployment/unemployment and crime. In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics conducted the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which found that nearly three-quarters of all incarcerated adults can not read at a fourth grade level. “They lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower paying jobs,” the survey concluded.
‘Correlation … no surprise’
And, according to the survey, people who do not generate sufficient income through their work “are the most prone to crime.”
Kurt Steinhaus, Cabinet secretary-designate of the Public Education Department, agreed. “The ability to read and understand complex information makes it possible for individuals to grow, develop and advance in our highly complex world,” he said.
“The strong correlation between incarceration and illiteracy should really come as no surprise. If you can’t read beyond a fourth-grade level, how can you thrive in the workforce? And if you can’t thrive in the workforce, how will you support yourself and your family? Too often, crime is the answer,” Steinhaus said.
Not only do people with more education generally avoid being involved with the criminal justice system in the first place, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a 43% reduction in recidivism rates among former inmates who regularly utilized a prison library and participated in prison education programs while incarcerated.
In recent years, the state’s prisons have seen up to 135 inmates annually earn their high school equivalency certifications, said Jaco. “In general, if you’re involved in programming, and you’re busting your butt inside, you’re going to have more success on the outside,” she said.
And the vast majority of these inmates will eventually be released to the outside.
As Jaco noted, these individuals are going to be someone’s neighbors. “I’d rather have them bagging our groceries than stealing our groceries, and the way to do that is through education,” she said.
“They have to learn a different way. Education … is not just good for when they get out. It’s also good for when they’re in, because the more they’re engaged in programming, the fewer security issues there are.”
Prison ed funding
According to state Corrections Department officials, the largest portion of the agency’s education budget – $5.9 million – comes from the state’s general fund.
Another $409,000 comes from the state’s Higher Education Department, most of which is pass-through money from the U.S. Department of Education, said Michelle Ribeiro, HED’s outreach coordinator for the Adult Education Division.
While state Corrections inmates of any age can work toward their high school equivalency credential by passing either state approved GED or HiSET tests, she said, getting to that point is not always easy.
“Most people equate adult education with just the opportunity to get a high school equivalency credential, and yes, that’s one important service we provide,” Ribeiro said. “But we also serve, for example, folks who have very low literacy levels and who are nowhere near close to testing for a high school equivalency credential. They may even be emergent readers, like literally starting from the basics of phonics and teaching somebody to read in prison.”
The state statute requiring inmates without a high school credential to enroll in eduction programs has good intentions; unfortunately, “there is no corresponding requirement to invest the commensurate level of resources that would serve the large percentage of folks who are eligible and mandated into these programs,” said Ribeiro, who used to be the education director at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
Why help inmates?
“One of the questions I used to get asked all the time was ‘we don’t have enough funding for public schools, so why in heaven’s name should we be giving free education to inmates?'” Ribeiro said.
She has also heard the related criticism that taxpayers certainly shouldn’t foot the bill for more academically ambitious inmates who want to take college courses while in prison.
To both questions, Ribeiro said she typically offers the same core responses: “First, the fact of the matter is that education reduces recidivism, along with contributing to a number of other positive outcomes like decreased reliance on government assistance. Education also costs far less than incarceration, plus it contributes to public safety.”
In addition, Ribeiro noted, “A good chunk of those inmates have children, and when a parent is incarcerated, those kids are much more likely to be impoverished and themselves become incarcerated. So you will pay more later if you don’t make an investment now in the things that we know will work for that parent to break the cycle.
“Pay now or pay more later. Take your pick.”