Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles went before a joint U.S. Senate-House hearing yesterday to explain how an idea he got while walking through a prison dormitory filled with television sets has become the cutting edge for parole reform in Virginia.
Baliles' "no-read, no-release" program for state prison inmates won support from Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on education, arts and humanities, who called the plan "a very good idea" that he might like his home state to consider.
Baliles, a voracious reader, said in an interview that he got the idea to make literacy a consideration for parole after visiting a Virginia prison and observing that the inmates "were sitting on their bunks watching television, which a guard said was a privilege."
Baliles said he asked the guard if another conditon of watching TV could be a requirement of reading a book a month. He said the guard laughed and said most of the inmates couldn't read. And those who could, he said, faced the peer pressure of being thought of as "sissies" if they were spotted reading books.
On the drive back to the governor's mansion, Baliles said he took out a sheet of paper and sketched out the idea of "no read, no release."
Baliles yesterday told a joint hearing of the Senate and House education subcommittees studying illiteracy in America that "crime and illiteracy go hand in hand," and that people who cannot read often turn to crime because "it is a profession that does not require an application form."
"In Virginia, two-thirds of our prisoners don't have a high school education," said Baliles, "and more than a third are functionally illiterate."
The "no-read, no-release" program is being considered by officials in other states, including South Carolina, Arizona and Maryland, where state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs has proposed the program as part of his corrections platform in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
The Virginia program requires the state parole board to consider an inmate's performance on a reading test and efforts to improve reading performance in its decision on whether to grant parole. Reading inadequacies would not necessarily prevent an inmate from obtaining parole, Baliles said.
Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on elementary, secondary and vocational education, asked whether the plan could be considered "unfair" and create "two classes" of prisoners.
Baliles said he sees "no unfairness" in the program because it exempts prisoners who cannot learn to read because of mental or emotional problems. The $1 million Virginia has earmarked to begin the program next month pales when compared with the $20,000 annual expense of keeping someone incarcerated, he said.
Sen. Stafford also raised constitutional concerns. Baliles said he is "reasonably confident" the plan could withstand a court test because it does not propose to "hold prisoners beyond the time imposed by the courts."
Beginning July 1, all 10,800 inmates in the state's prison system will be given a reading comprehension test. Those who score below the sixth-grade reading level -- a pilot program at one prison indicates that may be 40 percent of all inmates -- will be required to enroll in prison reading programs.
Publicity about the program already has had an effect on inmates, according to Baliles. At one prison library, the checkout rate for books increased 50 percent the week he announced the program.