The connection between early literacy and incarceration

The rumor was false but the connection was real. In our guest blog, educator Stan Lujan tackles the connection between Alaskans in prison and literacy. As Stan notes in his testimony to the House Finance Committee, prison planners do not look to reading scores to predict how many prison beds they’ll need. But the connection is stark.

Editor’s note: In testimony to the Alaska House Finance Committee earlier this year, longtime former educator Stan Lujan tackled the connection between incarceration and literacy. His testimony was so powerful that Best Beginnings reprints it here.

Honorable legislators….

  • In 2009 the cost per prisoner in our Alaska prison system was $49,800 per year, or $136 per day.
  • One year of Imagination Library books per preschool child, per year is $30, or 8 cent per day.
  • In 2009, an Alaska Justice Forum Study concluded that 1 out of 36 Alaskans were incarcerated. A majority of those Alaskans could not read past the 3rd grade reading level.

When that study came out, there was a rumor going around that our prison planners really used third grade reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need.

The rumor was explosive, because it speaks to so many of our deeply-rooted convictions – our apprehension over the cost of our prison system, and our worry over the quality and costs of our public schools, and our pre-K support programs, and all the long term benefits of those programs.

While there is no evidence of our State Department of Corrections using third grade reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need, there is still an undeniable connection between literacy skills and incarceration rates.

You see, a student not reading at his or her grade level by the end of the third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school on time and six times less likely for students from low-income families.

Also, high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college grads….

So, while there is no direct evidence that prison planners use third grade reading scores to determine the number of prison beds they’ll need, there is a connection between literacy rates, high school dropout rates, and crime.

This does speak to the important ways that reading skills are connected with favorable outcomes over the lifetime of a young child.

In conclusion, I urge the reinstatement of funding for Parents as Teachers, Best Beginnings, and Pre-K grants. These programs come at a small cost, relative to the long-term benefits.

Thank you all for all the hard work you do on our behalf, and thank you for providing us with this opportunity to speak today.

Stan Lujan has been a resident of Alaska since 1978, and a Juneau resident since 2008. He has been a teacher, principal, and superintendent. He currently serves on the Alaska and Southeast Boards for the Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children.

Source: Alaska Justice Forum – UAA – Alaska’s Five-Year Prisoner Reentry Strategic Plan, 2011–2016