LEARNING TO READ BEHIND THE FENCE

How we reported our story on adult literacy in Oregon prisons

From statesmanjournal.com

Statesman Journal education reporter Natalie Pate in the fall of 2021 began looking at the connection between literacy and adults in custody in Oregon prisons.

An estimated 70% or more of incarcerated adults nationwide are considered functionally illiterate, yet it had been more than a decade since journalists had written about the issue in Oregon.

Pate reached out to the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to learn more about how the state assesses adults’ literacy skills and the reading programs offered within state prisons.

She then secured a fellowship via the Education Writers Association to cover reporting costs for an in-depth project on the subject. The fellowship allowed intern Eddy Binford-Ross to write about daily education news while Pate focused on the project.

Starting in January, Pate reviewed existing research, collected data, contacted multiple states about potential prison visits,spoke with adult literacy and prison reform advocates, observed reading lessons in a local elementary school and attended a conference on adult basic education. She also interviewed dozens of experts, educators and currently or formerly incarcerated individuals.

Through public records requests, Pate acquired and analyzed Oregon Department of Corrections enrollment and test assessment data, finding that about 15% of the adults in custody statewide tested for reading below the eighth-grade level, qualifying them for mandatory literacy education. The data also revealed that nearly half of those who qualify have never been enrolled in classes, with hundreds on waiting lists.

The definition of illiteracy and how agencies handle corrections education differs state-to-state, making much of the data incomplete, outdated or hard to compare to other research.

Including the rarely-heard voices of prisoners was vital to the project but visiting prisons in Oregon and other states proved challenging during the pandemic. Officials for months declined the Statesman Journal’s requests to visit the facilities.

Once prisons reopened to visitors, Pate and photographer Brian Hayes interviewed educators and prisoners and observed classes at three Oregon prisons − Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario and Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem − as well as at the California State Prison at Los Angeles County in Lancaster.

Their work culminated in “Learning to read behind the fence” and a story on the connection between prison and literacy education in K-12 schools.

Read more here.

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