Literacy Efforts in Prison

Providing access to prison education, and funding it, isn’t a top priority in Oregon. Natalie Pate shares how poor literacy, dropout rates and crime intersect after investigating prison education programs in the state. (EWA Radio Episode 310)

Photo credit: Doidam10/Bigstock


About 70% or more incarcerated Americans can’t read at the fourth-grade level. This means they would struggle to understand a lunch menu, a ticket stub or a street sign. 

Oregon law requires that the majority of these prisoners take classes. But, while reporting for the Statesman Journal, Natalie Pate discovered there were more than 1,200 prisoners on a waitlist as of June 2022.

Nearly half of incarcerated people in Oregon who qualify as low-level readers — those who read below an eighth-grade level — have never been enrolled in classes, Natalie found. Providing funding and access to prison education isn’t a top priority in the state as illustrated by the Department of Corrections’ budget. 

Natalie spent hours inside prisons speaking with incarcerated adults about their education as children and heard why they wanted to learn to read and write. She pored over research papers and government documents to understand how poor literacy, dropout rates and crime intersect. Additionally, she spoke with experts about how – and why – the system must improve.

READ MORE: 9 Lessons a Reporter Learned Covering Prison Education

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