About two-thirds of California’s 173,000 inmates read below a ninth-grade level, and more than half read below a seventh-grade level, making them functionally illiterate, says the San Francisco Chronicle. Just 6 percent of inmates are in academic classes, and 5 percent attend vocational classes. Some experts regard that as one of the saddest among a long list of failures in the troubled prison system. Not only does an education make it much easier for a parolee to find and hold a decent job, but, unlike drug users, there are no relapses for those who escape illiteracy.
California’s shortcomings are particularly glaring given that a state law requires the corrections department to bring inmates to at least a ninth-grade reading level by the time they are paroled. The law is virtually ignored. Many prison educators say there is almost a complete disconnect between such legislative goals and what actually happens inside the prison walls. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons this fall, and the legislature singled out education as one potential solution. For the current fiscal year, it appropriated $52.8 million for special recidivism reduction efforts, with the largest amount, $21.1 million, for education. The reality is that enrollment in traditional academic and vocational classes is dropping, from 32,100 in fiscal 2001 to 21,800 in the past fiscal year.