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Prison Beds and Reading Levels

The meme seems to go something like this: In our state, officials use third-grade reading levels to project the number of prison beds that will be needed in ten years. Do a Google search on prison-beds third-grade or prison-cells third-grade and you’ll get a couple hundred results.

Xy wanted me to find an authoritative reference for her principal, but my instinct tells me this is bogus. It is attributed to many different states: Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois, Arizona, California. There are variants: sometimes it’s fourth grade, sometimes it’s second grade.

But most of all, it’s just too pat. Who ever heard of such sophisticated planning? And it’s easy to see why people would repeat this. Like the (bogus) idea that Eskimos have 200 words for snow, it makes a good point. If we build better schools, we might build fewer prisons.

So I think it’s an urban legend, but I can only find one source that says so. Anybody know different?

Published inThe Ed Biz


  1. Sounds bogus, only because I doubt the DOC plans ten years in advance. And at least in Indiana, that must be a pretty piss-poor planning method, because they’re consistently 30% over bedcount. Maybe they need to make those ISTEP tests harder 😉

  2. First off, I should mention that my email and website server is down for the week. It should be working next week, so if you want to contact me do so then.

    I found a “source” for the California claim. It’s a 2004 Washington Post article:

    However, that editorial doesn’t mention its source. It does only claim that reading levels are a factor in planning the number of prison bdds.

    There’s also apparently an Education Week, November 3, 1999 article that quotes the Governor of Indiana. But my local libraries don’t subscribe to EW and it isn’t available online without a subscription. Here’s where I learned about both articles:

    Good luck,

  3. That Washington Post article is the one that is debunked (authoritatively) in the letter to the editor I cited. As for Education Week… Maybe our library has it. I’ll check.

  4. OK, I found it:

    [T]he state of Indiana has found it useful to base projections for future prison construction on the number of 2nd graders who aren’t reading on grade evel.

    It’s in an article titled “The Quiet Revolution in Achievement” by Mike Schmoke, in Education Week Nov. 3, 1999 (p. 35). Unfortunately, he cites no source.

    You’ll note there is no reference to the governor of Indiana, as advertised by the Children’s Literacy Initiative. I contacted them and the Promotions Coordinator wrote me back with a helpful note which helped me find the Schmoke quote above, and further explained the governor reference:

    Kathy Egawa at the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) was the person who mentioned to our Executive Director Linda Katz that she heard the governor of Indiana make that statement in the early 90’s.

    Interesting, but I’m afraid that falls under the definiton of “hearsay.” It still sounds like a legend to me.

    July 27, 2007
    Senator Bayh Holds a Press Conference on Gang Violence with Linda Wallace, Founder of Security Dads
    I’d like to tell you a story. I remember we had a great man on our team, Jim Macon, when I was first elected governor. We had a prison over-crowding problem I inherited, and the solution involved adding more prison beds. Jim Macon was an expert in anticipating the number of prison beds that a state’s going to use from our Department of Correction. He put together a complex formula and he came in to tell me about it one day.
    I said, “Jim, if you had to pick just one fact – just one thing- that we need to look at to anticipate ten or twelve years from now how many prison beds we are going to need. It costs us thirty, forty, or fifty thousand dollars a year to house these inmates depending on whether it’s minimum, medium, or maximum security. What would be the single most accurate predictor of the number of prison beds we’re going to need ten years from now?”
    Jim got a real sorrowful look on his face and said, “Governor, the single most accurate predictor of the number of prison beds you’re going to need in ten to twelve years is the population of at-risk kids in the second grade today.

  6. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    Here in New Mexico, we have gradually eroded the ed. standards over the years.
    There is a movement towards Hispanic-targeted “standardized” tests, to
    -supposedly- equalize an unfair, biased, racist standard.
    (gag, cough,cough!)
    The Federal funding calculations for Ed. institutions allow this
    to go on…”Social Promotion” is the official policy of the largest school district
    in Albuquerque. This means that a functionally illiterate “student” is allowed
    to occupy a desk and pretend to study, disrupting the classroom and taxing
    the resources of the teacher and of the system. It is no joke that
    this appears to be an intentional dumbing-down program, perpetrated by
    the loftiest overlords of society.
    Private corporations run the prisons, and even a few of the County jails!
    These corporations grease the political skids to keep their contracts.
    Anyone who can afford it sends their kids to Private schools in NM,
    and those who cannot afford it are, more and more, choosing to
    Home-School rather than subject their kids to the pampered criminal
    gang culture.
    Hey Bart–a couple of movies for your list:
    “American Me”, and, to emphasize the horror we face on the Border,
    ” Sin Nombre”, released this year…
    All the “compassion” in your heart, and in the World ,
    for young criminals
    will not protect your family.
    Big-hearted, dedicated teachers are giving up their careers
    because “No Child Left Behind”, combined with ignorant, don’t-care
    parents and the threat of various “harassment” accusations have made
    the schools a tragedy.

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