Prisons Try To Span Learning Gap

Christine Murphy recalls a young man who was barely able to read when he first was imprisoned at the Brooklyn Correctional Institution.

“Within six months he had made a three-year gain in reading,” said Murphy, director of special education for the school district that operates 17 schools within the state’s prisons. “On average, our students will gain two grade levels in a year.”

Murphy and other educators working in the prisons, where programs serve adults and teenagers as young as 14 who were adjudicated as adults, say this man’s severe educational deficiency is far from unique. Despite having attended public schools for years, many prisoners read, write and perform math tasks at only the most basic of levels. Reading deficiencies are extremely common and many prisoners are virtual non-readers or read at a level more typical of a first- or second-grader. In the 2009-10 school year, there were 9,492 students in Unified School District 1 that operates in the state’s prisons. Of those, about 20 percent have mental health issues and 1,700 received special education services. Most also lack basic social skills such as making eye contact during a conversation and not reacting to frustrations with violence.

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