Vining: Do U.S. prison planners really use local third-grade reading scores to predict future inmate populations?

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3 Grade Reading Scores

Scribe: Sharon Vining, RN, OCN, BSN

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At the Aspen Ideas Festival, NPR’s Michele Norris stated during a panel discussion with mayors of several large cities that “The prison industrial complex will look at the test scores of a city’s third grade population. If the test grades are low, they know that they’ll have to start building a prison.”

Bill Graves from The Oregonian heard the rumor, “A few weeks ago I contacted nearly every department of corrections in the nation.  I heard back from 25 states saying they do not use elementary reading levels to plan for future prison beds.”

Terry Thornton, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said, “This is an urban myth. We have no idea where this originated from.”

Politifact also looked into the myth and conclude that it was “nothing more than an Internet rumor.”

So if this is a myth, what is their method of predicting the need for future prisons?  According to Director of Oregon Department of Corrections, Max Williams, “planners look at complicated formulas that are based on arrest rates and demographic data, such as the number of men 18 to 28 year old in the state.”

On the other hand, looking the third-grade reading scores may not be such a bad idea.  According to sociology professor Donald Hernandez who compared reading scores of 4,000 students, “A student who cannot read on grade level by the 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time.  If you then add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his proficient, wealthier peer.”

A study done by researchers at the Northeastern University using a range of census date found that one in every ten male high school dropouts is in jail, compared with one in 35 male high school graduates.

So while it may be only a myth that prison planners use our children’s reading scores to plan prisons, maybe they should.  On the other hand, if poor reading scores lead to increase dropouts and dropouts lead to increase prison rate and poverty leads to increase everything then what can be done – besides just building more prisons?

 Maybe instead of building more prisons, we could take that money and use it to identify children at risk and then help them to maintain grade level reading skills and to stay in school.  Maybe we could keep them out of prison.  Then everyone wins.

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