Correctional education can make a greater impact on recidivism by supporting adult inmates with learning disabilities.

Author:Koo, Angela

Table of Contents Introduction I. Learning Disabilities and Correctional Education Programs A. What Is a Learning Disability? B. Adult Correctional Education Programs II. Education and Recidivism III. Prisoners' Legal Rights to Education A. Constitutional Challenges B. Statutory Challenges to Prison Education Programs i. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA a. Purposes of [section] 504 and Title II b. Bringing Claims Under [section] 504 and Title II c. Difficulties with Bringing Claims Under [section] 504 and Title II ii. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act a. Purpose of the IDEA b. Bringing Claims Under the IDEA iii. Litigation Is an Inadequate Solution IV. Discussion of Adult Inmates with Learning Disabilities Is Lacking V. Providing Correctional Education for Adult Inmates with Learning Disabilities Can Further Reduce Recidivism Rates VI. Possible Solutions A. Test for Learning Disabilities at the Prison Door B. Training for Correctional Educators C. Provide Life Skills Training D. Need for More Research and Discussion Conclusion INTRODUCTION

Navigating the world with a learning disability can be challenging. For example, students with an auditory processing disorder, which impacts the ability to hear and distinguish sounds, or a visual processing disorder, which impacts the ability to process information visually, can have serious difficulty learning in a traditional classroom. (1) During primary school, mastering the basics of reading and math may not come easily for these students because they process information differently than their peers without learning disabilities. As each academic year builds upon basic skills taught in previous years, students with learning disabilities are vulnerable to falling behind--sometimes far behind--their peers in grade-level achievement.

A student's difficult experiences in primary and secondary school will likely continue into adulthood because learning disabilities do not magically disappear with age. There is no "cure" for a learning disability; (2) learning disabilities continue to impact adults' information processing as they did when the adults were children. Learning strategies to mitigate this impact and receiving accommodations or modifications at work and school can help adults manage their learning disabilities, but do not eliminate them. Because of this reality, adults with learning disabilities face extra challenges as they find and maintain employment, live in their communities, and provide for their families. And if these adults come into contact with the criminal justice system, their learning disabilities are with them as they serve their sentences, prepare for their release, and return to their communities.

This Comment focuses on adult prisoners with learning disabilities in the United States. Researchers estimate that 30%-50% of the adult prison population has a learning disability. (3) Currently, correctional education programs do not support these inmates even though numerous research studies suggest that correctional education decreases recidivism rates. (4) Reducing recidivism rates is one of the main goals of incarceration. (5) Lower recidivism rates are beneficial to society; lower rates mean that more released inmates are reintegrating into their communities as law-abiding citizens and pursuing noncriminal activities to make a living. (6) Thus, reforms in correctional education--namely, giving particular attention to the needs of inmates with learning disabilities--could greatly impact recidivism rates. The reforms proffered in this Comment are applicable to both federal and state prisons.

Part I of this Comment describes learning disabilities and some of the flaws of the current correctional education programs. Part II presents the link between correctional education and decreased recidivism. Part III explores inmates' legal rights regarding education, which may include the right to make constitutional and statutory challenges, and explains how pursuing litigation under these rights is an inefficient solution to inadequate correctional educational programming. Part IV presents the final piece of background information by drawing attention to the lack of research and discussion regarding adult prisoners with learning disabilities.

Part V argues that the strong link between education and recidivism, coupled with the significant percentage of adult prisoners with learning disabilities, provides a compelling rationale for correctional education reform. Specifically, correctional education programs cannot effectively reduce recidivism unless they recognize and support adult inmates with learning disabilities. Part VI presents four possible solutions that, together or separately, can improve the impact of educational programming for these inmates: testing for learning disabilities upon prison entry; mandating trainings on learning disabilities for all correctional educators; providing life skills training for prisoners to manage their learning disabilities upon release; and generating more discussion and research about this particular population. These solutions have the potential to address the gap in current correctional education programs, and thus, have a greater impact on recidivism rates.


    Part I presents background information for the rest of this Article. Subpart 1(A) defines "learning disability" and explains the impact of learning disabilities on students. Subpart 1(B) introduces adult correctional education programs, describing the important role they play in educating inmates.


      According to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, a learning disability is a "general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, and mathematical abilities." (7) Researchers believe that a malfunction in the central nervous system causes the effects of a learning disability. (8) These effects "include specific deficits in one or more of the following areas: oral comprehension, organization, coordination, perception, expressive language, the ability to sustain attention, nonverbal reasoning, integration of information, and social judgment." (9) Having a learning disability does not automatically mean mental retardation or limited intelligence, as many people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. (10) Many people with learning disabilities look, behave, and perform similarly to their counterparts without learning disabilities.

      Having a learning disability simply means that a person's ability to learn or communicate is impacted in a certain way. The degree of that impact can vary depending on the severity of the disability, and individuals cope with or compensate for their deficits in different ways. (11) Though individuals with learning disabilities are often as intelligent as their peers, they may require more time to process information or complete assignments than their nondisabled peers. Recent research shows that students with learning disabilities can be just as successful as their nondisabled peers if their teachers implement interventions to support their needs. (12) Providing certain accommodations can also help students with learning disabilities achieve academic progress because it allows them "to show what they know [on classroom assignments and assessments] without being impeded by their disability." (13) Simple and inexpensive interventions and accommodations can adequately help individuals overcome the varied ways a learning disability affects them.


      More than 1.5 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. (14) Many of these inmates come from backgrounds where educational opportunities were limited in some way, and, thus, they are generally less educated than the general population. (15) In 1997, "[e]ighty-two percent of the U.S. population held high school diplomas or GEDs ... but only 70 percent of federal prisoners and 60 percent of state prisoners had reached the same level of education." (16) And "in 2004, approximately 36 percent of individuals in state prisons had attained less than a high school education compared with 19 percent of the general U.S. population age 16 and over." (17) Since a large portion of inmates enter prison without a high level of education, many prisoners earn their GED or high school diploma during incarceration. (18) Thus, education programs in prisons play an important role in educating incarcerated individuals. In fact, "at least 70 percent of state and federal inmates who held a GED as of 1997 earned it while in prison." (19)

      Indeed, correctional education programs are integral to the rehabilitative goals of both state and federal prisons and their importance cannot be understated. Education programs are part of prisons' efforts to promote rehabilitation, one of the major goals of the criminal justice system. (20) Offenders can rehabilitate themselves by "[l]earning to read, write, compute, and effectively communicate" which "prepares the prisoners for life upon release." (21) The Federal Bureau of Prisons has made an effort to promote rehabilitation through education in federal prisons by requiring, for the most part, inmates to be at a high school level of reading, writing, and math. (22) If inmates, at the time they enter prison, do not meet this standard, they are enrolled in an adult basic education or GED program. (23) These programs are offered in about 90% of federal prisons. (24) And all federal prisons offer literacy classes. (25)

      State prisons, on the other hand, do not have these requirements. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Education enacted the Functional Literacy for State and Local Prisoners Program, (26) which provides...

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