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Reading by 9

Bars of the Mind

November 08, 1998

Prisons are filled with men and women who cannot read. Their reading difficulties cripple their possibilities upon release and also put their children at risk of becoming another generation of poor readers. The inability to read of course does not condemn one to a life of crime, but the correlation cannot be ignored.

This and other long-term consequences of illiteracy prompted the development of Reading by 9, The Times' effort to encourage all children to become competent readers by the end of third grade, or age 9. Nearly two out of three Southern California third-graders fail to read at grade level. Research shows that many problem readers never catch up after the fourth grade and are handicapped for life.

The Times' continuing commitment includes the debut in the Sunday Metro section of a new weekly Reading Page, which features advice from experts, tips for parents, reading events around the region, opportunities to tutor and recommendations for library books.

The best crime prevention investment is a library. Reading failure is one likely cause for the frustration and anger that result in delinquent behavior, according to a 1993 study of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice. Research also shows that when reading skills improve, recidivism declines.

The California Youth Authority, which incarcerates minors convicted of crimes, will not recommend parole for any ward who has not earned a high school diploma or passed the test for a general equivalency diploma, as the Times reports today. The Youth Authority teaches all of its wards, even those confined to a one-person cell for punishment. Most read far below grade level.

In adult prisons, 68% of inmates can't read well enough to hold a job, according to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey. The prison population represents the nation's single highest concentration of illiterate adults, says Jonathan Kozol, author of "Illiterate America." All California prisons offer literacy programs and classes, which are encouraged but not required. At the federal level, the U.S. Justice Department requires adult inmates to attend classes and earn high school equivalency degrees. Those who refuse face assignment to the lowest-paying prison jobs and perhaps disciplinary action or transfer. Similar incentives should be instituted at the state level.

At the Bedford Hills Women's Correctional Facility in New York, mothers and their young children participate in the federally funded Even Start Family Literacy demonstration project. The maximum-security prison, one of five in the nation where infants and preschoolers are allowed to live with their mothers or visit overnight, teaches mothers how to read and helps their children develop reading readiness skills such as learning the alphabet. Mothers also learn how to help their youngsters.

Mothers who are separated from their children are encouraged to tape-record stories. The tapes and accompanying storybooks are sent to their sons and daughters. Similar storybook projects are offered at prisons in New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and other states. California should expand a San Quentin project that allows inmate fathers to tape-record stories for their kids.

Even in prison, parents can help break the cycle of illiteracy. If they can learn to read, if they can learn to help their sons and daughters, their children can avoid becoming tomorrow's prisoners.

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