Discussion: Why Prison-Based Family Literacy Programs and Research Need to Expand
The findings from this review pointed to the merits of community-based family literacy programs. However, prison-based programs, and the families who could benefit from them, are constrained in ways that are not well understood, despite the limited but positive findings reported on here. For this reason -- and because the number of families who might benefit from prison-based family literacy programs is large and growing -- I argue that these programs need to be rigorously studied on a broader scale. Further, practitioners should not wait until more research is complete to carefully expand these programs. Reasons are discussed below.
Prison policy can no longer ignore the needs of the children of prisoners. Prison-based parenting programs focus on the incarcerated parent but only rarely on their children. These programs receive only a fraction of the funding that other prison programs - most notably literacy - receive and serve a much smaller portion of the prison population. For example, a recent report on Federal prisoners revealed that, on any given day, approximately two percent of federal prisoners were enrolled in parenting programs, while 20 percent were enrolled in literacy programs (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2005). By integrating parenting with literacy, the number of prisoners reached would expand ten-fold; this could affect over 25,000 families of federal prisoners alone.
Gadsden et al. (2005) argued that children of prisoners are most readily located through the prisons that hold their parents and that there is a need for "new alliances among systems that serve adults and those that serve children. Such systems reside clearly in correctional settings and in federal and state policy domains" (p. 27).
Adult literacy learners learn more effectively in family literacy programs. Researchers consistently found that adult literacy learners in community-based family literacy programs achieved higher gains and higher rates of retention than learners in traditional literacy programs (McDonald & Scollay, 2002; Padak & Rasinski, 2003; Ricciuti et al., 2004). In 1992, over one million adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons lacked a high school diploma or GED (Haigler et al., 1994). Further, many literacy learners in prison may have deep concerns and unresolved issues relating to their families at home (Muth, in press). Thus, the potential for prison-based family literacy programs, in terms of traditional outcomes such as literacy learning and achieving a GED and in terms of benefits to children and other family members, is great.
Adults leaving prison and their family members are ill-prepared for the reunion. Findings suggest that parents who reconnect with their families through prison-based family literacy programs experience lower rates of recidivism (Genisio, 1999; Northampton Community College, 1995). Though these findings are preliminary and not rigorously tested, they are consistent with current criminogenic theory that identifies strong family ties as a predictor of post-release success. Visher and Travis (2003) argued that "recidivism is directly affected by post-prison reintegration and adjustment, which, in turn, depends on�personal and situational characteristics, including the individual's social environment of peers, family, [and] community�" (p. 89). Hairston (2003) found
evidence that families affect the ways in which prisoners adjust to imprisonment and their postrelease success�.Male prisoners who maintain strong family ties during imprisonment have higher rates of postrelease success than those who do not.�Men who assume family roles and responsibilities following incarceration have lower levels of recidivism than those who do not. (p. 14)
Much has been published about other predictors of post-incarceration success, such as academic and job skills, but little is known about how prison-based support programs help families adjust and assimilate returning family members (Gadsden, 2003).
Although community-based family literacy programs have proven merits, we do not know if, and to what degree, they generalize to prison-based programs. We do not know enough about the unique needs of children, their incarcerated parents, or the programs and practitioners that serve them. Numerous theoretical and practical questions remain, such as: How do prison-based family literacy programs support Parent-and Child-Together time (PACT) when children are unable to make visits to the prison? Can prison classrooms engender the trust and respect needed to support successful family literacy programs? What roles do caregivers play in these programs, and how should their needs be addressed? How should programs for mothers and fathers differ? How can prisoners without children benefit from intergenerational literacy programs? When implementing these programs, how can we "first, do no harm"? For example, how can we respect children's privacy needs? These and many more questions need to be carefully addressed.