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  • Writer's pictureArch Policy Institute

Reading and Recidivism: Implementing Literacy Programs in Correctional Facilities - Anvika Menon

Hi everyone! My name is Anvika Menon, and I am the Arch Policy Institute’s Policy Team Coordinator. Last year, I had the privilege of leading the Education Policy Team and researching ways to address low literacy rates in Athens-Clarke County. 

There are three issue areas that I find to be increasingly salient in Athens: criminal justice, education, and homelessness. I am a strong proponent of efficient problem-solving, and I was eager to delve into policy solutions that could address all three of these at the same time. No policy will solve every problem. However, with limited time, political momentum, and resources, it is important to prioritize policies that result in the maximum harm reduction possible. 

All of these trends are connected: the school-to-prison pipeline and criminalization of homelessness ensure that minorities are consistently herded into jails and prisons. The Athens Anti-Discriminatory Movement states that an influx of zero-tolerance policies that criminalize minor infractions, increased law enforcement personnel (school resource officers and police officers), widespread poverty and implicit biases result in minority students being predominantly suspended or expelled. Many of these students are then left to fend for themselves, leading to homelessness, drug use, or any litany of events that can result in incarceration. Section 1-10-26 in the Athens-Clarke County Code of Ordinance states that tents or other temporary shelters are not permitted for camping, sleeping, or overnight stay in public parks and open spaces. This is merely one example of homelessness being criminalized. If unhoused people cannot sleep in open, public spaces, then where are they expected to go? The answer is often jail.

By this point, I hope you see the story starting to unfold. Minority children disproportionately do poorly in school, lash out and get suspended or expelled for disciplinary infractions, have fewer opportunities to make sufficient money to avoid the pit of homelessness, and get whisked into jail for any variety of reasons, many of which are directly tied to their housing insecurity. This triangle is multidirectional as well. Individuals who are released from jails and prisons often struggle to get a job and wind up back on the streets. Rinse, lather, repeat. 

Human beings in this process are rarely given institutional access to educational materials or the means to break out of the system. While teachers, families, and community members genuinely care about these students, policy intervention has become increasingly necessary. 

In 2015, Athens-Clarke County built a new jail complete with classrooms and a library. Libraries can operate as spaces of opportunity for marginalized patrons, helping them improve their computer literacy, learn about career readiness and research community resources. However, books are not particularly useful if one cannot read them.

A whopping 85% of people in the juvenile correctional system are “functionally illiterate,” according to Sharon Duncan, who works for the Athens Reading Clinic at Broadacres. At the same time, learning to read can reduce recidivism rates from 70 to seven percent. Malcolm Mitchell, a UGA alumnus, described his journey as a student-athlete and learning to love books despite coming from a high school with low literacy rates. His story reaffirms two trends: poverty enables illiteracy and access to resources is dependent on the individual voluntarily seeking them out. As such, it logically follows that the mere presence of a library in a county jail or juvenile correctional facility would have a minimal impact unless prisoners were actively incentivized to read. 

The Clarke County Jail offers GED classes and library services but no literacy-focused program. While other organizations, such as the Athens Prison Tutorial, also help inmates get their GEDs, it is student-run and less likely to be able to dedicate the time and resources for systematic and scaffolded reading interventions, which is key. HeartBound Ministries also operates a Little Readers Program, which provides children’s books to visitation rooms so incarcerated parents can read together with their children. However, this program does not appear to be implemented in the Clarke County Jail. 

As such, a formal multi-pronged literacy program should be implemented in Clarke County correctional facilities through collaboration with HeartBound Ministries’ Little Readers Program, the Athens Prison Tutorial and the Athens Anti-Discriminatory Movement. The program should follow the model set by Maryland, which instituted a Peer Reading Tutoring Academy based on the Johns Hopkins University Reading Academy Program. Professionals rigorously screen tutor applications from current inmates and train the tutors to use real-life materials to convey concepts. Tutors learn to apply the “Fernald method [sight-word instruction], a directed listening-language experience approach, the neurological impress method, word attack and comprehension skills and sustained silent reading.” Tutors then teach their peers, thereby increasing literacy rates and fostering community and relationship skills. Such an approach should be combined with the reading corners in visitation rooms and reading-based incentives. For instance, inmates who read a certain number of books each month and pass a comprehension exam could qualify for additional visitation time, time outside, or other benefits. 

The advantage of this approach is that it targets a variety of social issues at the root: education. By promoting community involvement and educational achievement beyond the GED classes and library services that currently exist, this literacy program enables inmates to begin pursuing other valuable skills, such as vocational training and financial planning. This increases their chances of finding employment upon release, reduces recidivism rates and minimizes the likelihood of them becoming homeless. It is clear that such an initiative would yield a far greater return on investment by tackling the triad of critical issues in Athens.

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