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Books behind bars: how can reading support change lives?

Published on
November 22, 2023 at 12:00:00 AM PST November 22, 2023 at 12:00:00 AM PSTnd, November 22, 2023 at 12:00:00 AM PST

Understanding the low literacy connection 

Both hard data and theoretical studies demonstrate a strong correlation between time spent in a correctional facility and low literacy. It makes sense: when literacy is low and there’s a lack of reading and writing confidence, barriers emerge between individuals and opportunity:

• Unsupported low literacy means lower test results or failing tests altogether. This means that it’s far harder to get into further education, training, or work after school.

• Low literacy in school can also make it far easier to disengage from learning further, and experience consequences like sanctions and removal from class.

• Low literacy makes it extremely hard to find work. So, few jobs in the modern age don’t require at least a degree of confident reading, and without it, it’s hard to find a position.

• Not being able to read with confidence also makes other skills harder to foster, such as driving, effective communication and digital literacy, all of which can have an impact on economic opportunities.

• And not being able to engage and communicate effectively can lead to disenfranchisement, which can lead to larger instances of engagement with the justice system, especially in young people. 

When options like these close off and disengagement starts to happen, barriers begin to feel insurmountable. It becomes more likely that somebody will become a justice-involved individual and spend time in a correctional facility. 

Today, we’re looking at how access to books behind bars can change the narrative, and how the right support is vital if we’re to end the cycle of recidivism. 

The role of the school-to-prison nexus 

It goes deeper: although it’s a useful relationship analysis, it’s not as simple as not having the requisite reading skills meaning that opportunities become harder to come by. The low literacy cycle is subject to a series of environmental factors, the most prominent being the school-to-prison nexus.

Previously termed the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and renamed to encompass the complexities and reversible flows within the model, the school-to-prison nexus refers to the network of pathways that sees learners in some social groups encounter higher incidences events that result in an increased risk of becoming a justice-involved individual.

The model originated in the United States and highlights the disproportionate nature of youth incarceration that has its beginnings in the education system. It explores the data that indicates how some racial groups (predominantly Black and Brown youth) in America are disciplined far more harshly in education compared to their White classmates, which leads to further sanctions like more learning time lost, school exclusions, police intervention and school expulsions. This—and often the general climate of authority in their time in school altogether—results in low literacy, and lower life chances when they come to the end of compulsory schooling age. 

What about dyslexia? 

We don’t have any global data on the number of people who have dyslexia and have spent time in a correctional facility, but many unsupported individuals with dyslexia do fall into the low literacy demographic that experiences a higher rate of trial and detention. It’s a sad but safe assumption that if somebody has dyslexia and their reading skills fall behind without adequate support and intervention, there’s a higher chance that they’ll end up facing some of the problems in the list above and engaging with the justice system. 

Dyslexia also makes it harder to engage with learning and books behind bars as an accessibility gap is present, and it’s vanishingly unlikely that people in-cell will have access to a professional who supports them whenever they need to read.

Beating the recidivism cycle with books behind bars 

7 in 10 people who spend time in a correctional facility will commit a new crime at some point in the future. For around half of them, this will be in under three years. 

The Prison Studies Project (2018).

Some data paints an even more uncomfortable picture: in some countries, the recidivism rate is around 80%. 

The Transformative Potential of Prison Libraries, UNESCO ILL (2019)

If low literacy skills lead a person to spend time in a correctional facility, we shouldn’t be surprised if, on release, they end up making a choice that sees them return to one. It’s a cycle: the same factors that may have led them to engage with the justice system in the first place are likely still extant in their lives, and the same pathways of employment, training and income that many confident readers take for granted remain out of their reach. 

That’s why it’s so important that we focus on literacy. And the best way that we can do this is to use the right literacy support to break the cycle. 

How access to books behind bars can change the narrative 

If we can use the time spent in a correctional facility as an intervention point where we take stock of reading ability and use the period to build reading skills, confidence and even study for qualifications, we can remove so much of the impetus that leads people to the choices that result in them becoming justice-involved individuals. 

Access to books behind bars doesn’t have to be just a right for people in correctional facilities: it can be a turning point, too. 

• With assistive technology support, reading becomes easier and information becomes easier to access and process. Textbooks, novels, newspapers… anything is possible, and learning becomes accessible.

• Prison libraries no longer feel like a site of frustration and inability, but one of development and escaping boredom. This leads to further engagement with library and learning facilities, and a breakdown of the disengagement barrier.

• Documentation becomes more accessible too: so many justice-involved individuals struggle to read their own court and legal documents. 

• People also have greater options to read in-cell and pursue individual literacy development, which can support confidence growth and belief in their skills ready for work.

• Qualifications become accessible and people in correctional facilities become more able and willing to take advantage of school and college diploma and degree programs, which hugely boost employment and training potential.

• It also improves access to trades and skilled training within the correctional facility estate, which again contributes to the ability to successfully transition into work and beat the recidivism cycle at the end of a custodial sentence. 

It’s not quite as simple as improving access to books behind bars and boosting literacy skills makes other factors that might influence an individual’s potential for engagement with the justice system go away, but it’s not that much more complex either: when we raise literacy levels, the people who are released have more options. 

But when so many people in correctional facilities have such low literacy skills, it becomes a case of finding the right way to get them reading.

And that means finding the right support.

The role of assistive technology

Assistive technology reading support helps those in correctional facilities with low literacy develop skills and coping mechanisms for learning. It also makes reading something that feels possible, and a skill that they can rely on: confidence is an important part of developing a literacy level that’s ready for education, work or training.

Human reading support can only go so far in a correctional facility environment due to resources and timing, and teaching professionals are often working with smaller budgets and even smaller time allowances than ever before. Especially as the number of people in correctional facilities around the world is larger than ever before, and growing at an alarming rate, reading support solutions that can be resourced affordably, used individually and feature an intuitive and user-friendly design are the order of the day.

But boosting to books behind bars needs a secure approach. 

There are logistical challenges when we‘re administering reading support in a correctional facility environment. 

A lot of traditional assistive technologies either lack compliance with the security parameters to make them appropriate for in-institution use or rely on the consistent accessibility of technology like tablets and laptops, which sadly isn’t the case for millions of prisoners. Human support on the scale that it would need to be resourced would be incredibly inexpensive and likely impossible to supply, no matter how vital it might be to boosting access to books behind bars.

So, when we know that we need reading support but lack the technologies and the ability to administer it in a way that works for the correctional facility as a setting, what’s the answer? 

The C-Pen Secure Reader 2

The C-Pen Secure Reader 2 is a reading pen that’s designed for use in secure estates and correctional facilities. It features a unique zero-storage design, and there’s no need for Wi-Fi connectivity, meaning that it can be used across the institution wherever such devices are permitted, from libraries and learning resource centers to in-cell and in recreation areas.

It’s the ultimate accessibility tool without compromising on security: nothing can remain on the pen after it’s been used, there’s no recorder or upload function, and it’s impossible to transport data as everything happens within the pen’s secure data system.

It’s also one of the most intuitive and user-led reading devices in the world. It’s literally as simple as moving the pen across the page to hear a customizable-speed audio playback of the text. It requires very little training, and once the mechanism is learned, users are able to scan and read as they like on a reliable 8-hour charge. 

• Secure Reader 2 cannot back charge phones 

• Secure Reader 2 does not have removable batteries 

• Secure Reader 2 cannot connect to Wi-Fi 

• Secure Reader 2 does not have built-in memory or storage 

Users can even choose to listen via the pen’s in-built speaker or to keep things discreet with the use of a pair of headphones, making it accessible and user-friendly even for those who don’t want to be seen engaging with assistive technologies or reading support. 

Access to qualifications with C-Pen Secure Reader 2

Boosting reading confidence, improving access to documentation, developing support systems that prepare people for work: they’re all vital parts of improving life chances for people leaving correctional facilities, but one of the best ways to change the narrative for people leaving a custodial sentence are qualifications. 

People in correctional facilities often have negative experiences in school and leave with no qualifications or disengage early. Some might not even leave school before they end up in a correctional facility and miss vital years of schooling and development. 

The ability to reapproach qualifications with a reading support like C-Pen Secure Reader 2 makes in-test reading simpler and more accessible for learners with lower literacy levels. Many institutions and qualification providers permit the use of these reading pens even under exam conditions, so they’re a reliable pathway to test attainment that doesn’t put any additional strain on education budgets.

To find out more about supporting reading in secure environments, boosting test scores and qualifications for learners in correctional facilities and improving access to books behind bars, get in touch with the Scanning Pens team.