The "no read, no release" parole policy recently ordered by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles for Virginia prison inmates is the newest -- and most far-reaching -- of a number of innovative ideas that states have implemented in an effort to combat illiteracy and keep released inmates from returning to prison.
While the programs take a variety of approaches to encouraging education -- some offering carrots, some sticks and some a combination -- they are motivated by the same underlying philosophy: That an inmate who leaves prison unable even to read classified ads to find work is more likely to end up on public assistance or to return to crime and, eventually, to prison.
"You can't really expect an education program to turn around a person who has all these other things that have led to crime and probably to repeat crime," said Osa Coffey, a correctional education expert with the Institute for Economic and Policy Studies in Alexandria and former director of the U.S. Department of Education's correctional education program.
But, she said, "Unless we educate and provide skills for these people to get jobs, whether they commit crimes or not, they're still going to be feeding off taxpayers."
"Far too many prisoners are also prisoners of illiteracy," Baliles said Feb. 10 in announcing the program in Virginia, where 35 percent of the state's 10,800 inmates are considered functionally illiterate. "When released, many can't function in a complex, fast-moving society. Many cannot read and write well enough to fill out job applications forms or balance a checkbook. They return to what they know too well: crime and prison."
Baliles' announcement, however, has drawn fire from some civil liberties groups and correctional education experts, who say it would be unconstitutional and unworkable.
Of the approximately 450,000 people in state and federal prisons, 10 to 15 percent cannot read at all, and many more are considered functionally illiterate, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Only 40 percent have completed high school, compared with 85 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.
A number of prison systems have begun programs to improve that situation:
In Maryland, inmates who score below the fifth-grade level on standardized reading and mathematics tests must attend remedial classes for 90 days. Under the program, adopted in 1984, inmates are paid about $1 daily for attending class and can earn up to 10 days off their sentences for each month they are enrolled; they face disciplinary action if they refuse to go, and they must achieve the fifth-grade level in order to work in various prison jobs.
"I don't think anyone would pretend to solve anyone's educational problems who's below the fifth-grade level in 90 days," said David Jenkins of the state Division of Correction. "What we hope to do is basically hook the person -- 'We're going to lead you to water and we're going to try to get you to drink, and, hopefully, you're going to like the taste.' "
Under a similar mandatory education program implemented by federal prison officials in 1982, inmates are paid a $25 bonus if they complete the remedial program and test successfully at the sixth grade level. The number of students who have achieved that goal has more than tripled since the program was started, from 1,441 in 1981 to 4,909 in 1984. A pilot program implemented in prisons in the Northeast last year is aiming to have students achieve the eighth-grade level.
The D.C. City Council is to vote this week on a bill aimed at reducing crowding and spurring prisoner interest in education. The measure directs the mayor to establish a program to accelerate prisoners' parole eligibility if they have completed educational or vocational programs. In testimony Dec. 9 before the council's Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova opposed the idea, saying it could result in "premature release of a dangerous and unrehabilitated defendant who would not otherwise be an appropriate candidate for early parole."
More than $40 million in federal funds has gone to set up model education and job training programs at the D.C. Department of Corrections since October 1983, although the program has been hobbled by changes in leadership and delays in building new classroom and training areas.
In Connecticut, where 25 to 30 percent of prisoners are considered functionally illiterate, inmates are paid 75 cents to $1.50 daily to attend classes -- the same amount they would earn in prison jobs. Since the program started two years ago, enrollment in educational programs has increased from 1,200 to about 1,600, according to Raymond J. Vitelli, superintendent of schools for the Corrections Department.
"There was more incentive to get a job cleaning windows than there was to learn how to read, and that was ridiculous," he said. "We were sending a clear message to the inmate population that it really doesn't pay to get educated."
Under an Arkansas program that has been in place since 1973, inmates who test below the fourth-grade level -- about 21 percent of state prisoners -- must attend school one day per week until they attain that level. The program, which does not apply to prisoners over age 50 or who already have high school diplomas, survived a federal court challenge by an inmate, according to corrections department spokesman David White.
"Obviously, we cannot require an inmate to learn," White said. But, he said, "We get people in who are, in fact, illiterate who, when they leave, at least can function." He said that the recidivism rate among inmates who go on to earn high school equivalency degrees is 15 percent -- less than half that for other inmates.
Correctional education experts said they believe Virginia's "no read, no release" parole policy would be the first of its kind in the country.
Details of the program are still being worked out, but it is expected to get under way within six months, according to Charles K. Price, superintendent of schools for the state Department of Correctional Education. He said the program "will be tailored on an individual basis" to accommodate inmates with learning disabilities or other handicaps.
"I think it's a fine idea," Price said. "I think it provides incentive in the prison system for considerable self-improvement."
But others expressed doubt about the constitutionality and feasibility of Baliles' order.
"I think there would be an equal-protection problem of treating people who don't read differently from people who do read," said Alvin Bronstein, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. "Although I think improving education programs is a very good idea, I don't think you can make parole eligibility dependent on it."
Dianne Carter, a corrections education specialist at the U.S. Department of Education, said, "I don't know if it's a just solution . . . to deny them parole because they don't have those skills. Do you penalize them further because maybe they don't have the intellectual capability? . . . If an inmate is in for two years and comes in totally illiterate, I doubt they can attain literacy in that period of time."
"The fact is that people are not sentenced to reading and writing," education specialist Coffey said. "They are sentenced to a certain amount of time, and then within that time they are eligible for parole . . . . It's dangerous to mix in education."
Experts said it was necessary to have high-quality instruction in order to implement the program fairly. "Somebody who has dropped out of school . . . must have an extremely good program to which he or she is being exposed," said Marianna I. Burt, acting executive director of the Correctional Education Asssociation. "Otherwise, it will be a tragic experience all over. It can become a punishment, and when education becomes punishment, then I have a real question about it."
In his announcement, Baliles pledged to add $860,000 to the state's $9 million correctional education budget.
Education experts warned against expecting too much from such programs. They said that because of difficulties in tracking former prisoners and other limitations, no studies have conclusively shown a link between education programs and lowered rates of recidivism.
"You can't make education the thing that's going to save the system, because it's not going to," said Stephen Steurer of the National Institute of Corrections, which is surveying literacy programs across the country. "Many of the inmates have a poor social history, a poor employment history, a drug or alcohol abuse problem. To make parole contingent upon becoming literate is only dealing with one part of the problem."
However, many education specialists praised the new focus on literacy.
"I think it's a long-overdue recognition that the inmates in the prisons are at an incredible disadvantage when it comes to education . . . . The number of totally nonreading, noncomputing people is just phenomenal," Coffey said. "Nobody has been able to prove a direct connection between education programs and reduced recidivism, but if you look at it the other way, you can just about guarantee that, with their current skills, most of these people wouldn't survive."