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Just the Stats: Prison Inmates More Literate Than Before

A recent study suggests new prison inmates are more educated than cohorts from a 1992 study, and more of their parents are college-educated. In fact, the literacy scores of Black and Hispanic inmates were higher than those of Black and Hispanic high school dropouts living in society.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released “Literacy Behind Bars: Results From the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy Prison Survey.” The survey was administered to more than 18,000 adults (16 years and older), living in households in America. An additional 1,200 surveys were also dispensed to prison inmates at the state and federal levels, a sample representative of the nearly 1.4 million adults in prison. The measurement tool assessed literacy through straightforward tasks completely by the test taker. Literacy was measured in three categories — prose, document and quantitative literacy — on a scale of 0 to 500.

According to NCES, “adults who have not obtained a high school diploma or any postsecondary education are more likely to be incarcerated than adults with higher levels of education.” In 2003, incoming inmates had higher levels of educational attainment than in 1992, the study found. The parents of inmates also had higher levels of educational attainment, specifically at the postsecondary level, from 25 percent in 1992 to 33 percent in 2003. 

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Based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the prison population grew by approximately 55 percent from 1993 to 2003. About 43 percent of all prison inmates had a high school diploma or equivalent, and 19 percent received their degree while incarcerated

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In 1992, 49 percent of inmates did not have a high school diploma or a General Education Development certificate. That number had dropped substantially — to 37 percent — by 2003. Consequently, inmates had higher literacy scores in 2003 than in 1992. On average, inmates scored 9 points higher on prose, 6 points higher on literacy scales and 15 points higher on quantitative literacy. Still, prison inmates, on average, continue to have lower scores on all three scales than nonincarcerated adults.

But when compared to high school dropouts who are not in jail, minority prison inmates posted higher average scores across the board. Black and Hispanic adults living in households scored lower on average prose and literacy than Black and Hispanic inmates. However, White adults living in households scored higher than White inmates. 


Average literacy scores of Black adult prison and household population for those with a GED or high school equivalency:




Prison Inmates








Between 1992 and 2003, the number of Black inmates scoring below basic literacy declined by nearly 40 percent in the prose category, declined 47 percent in documentation and dipped 22 percent on the quantitative scale.

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There was no statistical difference between male and female inmates across all literacy levels. 

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How could prisoners have a higher prose literacy than Blacks who are not in jail?  Perhaps, you Diverse readers who are social scientists care to weigh in here.

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