WASHINGTON -- The federal prison system, moving to reduce illiteracy in its swelling population, is launching an aggressive effort to raise inmates' required reading ability from eighth- to 12th-grade level.
Prisoners who refuse to take reading classes when they test below the high school graduate level will lose benefits inside the institutions or face discipline in the program announced yesterday by Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh.
Mr. Thornburgh and federal Bureau of Prisons officials stressed positive aspects of the effort, contending that prison literacy programs have been well received by both staff and prisoners.
Inmates "have readily accepted our new approach," Mr. Thornburgh said in a speech to an international conference on literacy and corrections in Ottawa. "For most who cannot read, competing in the legitimate work world is impossible.
"We believe there is a straight-line relationship between literacy levels and an individual's likelihood of involvement in substance abuse." Basic literacy "not only helps the prisoner after release but, equally important, contributes to a better life while in prison and to a safer environment for both staff and inmates," Mr. Thornburgh said.
About 20 percent of the nation's 58,000 federal inmates are illiterate, Mr. Thornburgh said, using eighth grade as a standard.
The literacy program in the Bureau of Prisons began in the early 1980s with a sixth-grade literacy standard, which was later raised to eighth grade.
The 12th-grade standard, now being enforced as part of a pilot program at 10 facilities, will take effect throughout the federal prison system early next year, said Gregory L. Bogdan, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman.
Failure to work toward attaining literacy could weigh against a prisoner being considered for a move to a halfway house during the last six months of his term, said Mr. Bogdan.
Similarly, it could result in an inmate's drawing the lowest rate of pay -- 44 cents an hour instead of the top $1.05 rate -- for work inside the institution, Mr. Bogdan said.
Last year, 10,546 federal inmates completed eighth-grade requirements and 3,100 finished high-school equivalency programs, Mr. Thornburgh said. An additional 1,781 finished programs that taught English as a second language.