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Intergenerational Literacy Programs for Incarcerated Parents and Their Families: A Review of the Literature (page 5)
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Benefits of Prison-based Family Literacy Programs

The findings in this section are tentative due to the small number of studies cited. Eight studies specifically designed to address prison-based family literacy programs were found (see Table). Most of these studies were descriptive rather than evaluative. The findings, though preliminary, may be useful for designing pilot programs and framing larger studies.

Table 1 - Summary of Studies of Prison-Based Family Literacy Programs

Academic achievement. Like other family literacy programs, prison-based ones appear to improve children's performance in school and raise parents' reading test scores. One study (Northampton Community College, 1995) involved 150 incarcerated fathers enrolled in ABE, ESL, or GED programs, who participated in a 10-week family literacy program. Fathers took parenting classes, received support for letter writing, recorded readings of storybooks, and visited with their children on a bi-weekly basis. On average, the fathers gained 1.7 grade equivalents in reading, as measured on the Basic English Skills Test or Test of Adult Basic Education. Although the gains are admirable, no comparisons were made with literacy learners who did not participate in the family literacy component. An earlier pilot study (Martin, 1991) found that 10 incarcerated fathers' literacy skills improved after a 16-week program that involved parenting awareness, storybook selection and reading, and language experience approach activities, but did not involve the children. The authors did not describe how the improvements were measured or the extent of the gains.

In a study of 30 incarcerated fathers, Gadsden et al. (2005) found that some caretakers perceived that their children improved in school after regaining contact with their fathers through bi-weekly videoconferences, summer camps, and mailings of tape-recorded books. Although some caretakers also reported that their children experienced frequent school-related difficulties, both academic and social, they felt these problems were in part attributable to growing into adolescence and would have been worse without the father contact.

Literacy practices. Ports (see Literacy Assistance Center, 2003) described a 10-week "reading, discussion, and writing program for [12 incarcerated] mothers" (p. 12). She found that the women increased the quality and quantity of journal writing and letter writing, and grew more confident about reading storybooks out loud. Geraci (2000) found that incarcerated literacy learners who participated in a storybook writing and publishing program improved the quality of their letter writing. For example, one prisoner wrote a letter of apology to his estranged mother that rekindled their relationship. Similarly, other studies of incarcerated fathers that participated in family literacy programs found that the fathers became gentler and more attentive toward their children (Northampton Community College, 1995) and more skillful (Genisio, 1996) during storybook reading time in the visiting room.

Communication with children. Ports (Literacy Assistance Center, 2003) reported that incarcerated mothers who participated in a 10-week family literacy program had more communications with their children, including longer and more meaningful letters. Others also reported an increase in written communication between parents and children (Genisio, 1996; Geraci, 2000; Northampton Community College, 1995). Ports argued that "literacy-based programs designed to increase parent-child communications are one of the mechanisms for helping mothers and children reestablish important ties" (p. 12).

Transformative learning. Mezirow (1991) used the term transformative to characterize learning that caused a shift in one's perception of the world or one's self concept. Examples of transformative learning were found in the literature on prison-based family literacy programs. Ports (Literacy Assistance Center, 2003) described how incarcerated mothers in a family literacy program used journals and storytelling to discover and construct their identities as mothers separated from their children. She quotes one mother's evaluation of the program: "I learned how to put my life in words to make me feel better about me. And I learned how to put things into words that I never thought I could" (p. 17).

Martin (1991) found that incarcerated fathers who participated in prison-based family literacy programs learned to accept themselves as literacy role models for their children. Gadsden et al. (2005) noted a shift in the way incarcerated fathers thought about themselves after participating in a family literacy program: "What once was the lure of the streets becomes the lure of possibly spending time with their children" (p. 24). The fathers reported, and the prison administration confirmed, that their day-to-day behavior had improved as a result of the program. Geraci (2000) described how incarcerated fathers used autobiographical writing to reflect upon their pasts and to reconnect with their estranged families. The men also constructed a safe space within the classroom to share personal experiences.

Only one of the seven prison-based family literacy studies addressed the children of incarcerated parents. Gadsden et al. (2005) found that these children often kept the status of their absent parent a secret; however, they quickly formed a closely knit community when they met at a summer camp program that brought the children and their parents together. This group of children also collaborated to create two books of poetry that gave voice to their experiences and search for self-revelation.

Other benefits. Three other findings suggest further advantages of prison-based family literacy programs and illustrate the pressing need for further study. (a) High rates of participation and engagement were reported for incarcerated mothers (Literacy Assistance Center, 2003) and caregivers (Northampton Community College, 1995). (b) Two studies sited lower rates of recidivism for fathers who participated in family literacy programs while in prison. Northampton Community College (1995) found that 49 percent of one cohort (n=49), and 27 percent of a second cohort (n=48) of participants returned to prison compared to a general recidivism rate of 80 percent. Genisio (1999) also found lower recidivism rates for participants. Both Genisio (1999) and Gadsden et al. (2005) cited lower disciplinary problems among participants while incarcerated.

Conclusion. The findings from studies of prison-based family literacy programs are promising but far from conclusive. They include improved academic gains for parents and children; higher quality and more frequent literacy practices, including written correspondences between parents and their children and other family members; transformations in the way parents and children view themselves and their worlds; high levels of engagement; lower recidivism rates; and better behavior in prison. These encouraging findings must be tempered by the paucity of rigorous studies available.


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