US Prison Literacy Statistics

The United States of America has the largest prison population in the world. With more than 2.2 million people incarcerated across the country, research shows a correlation between literacy rates and the likelihood of a person being sent to prison.

US prison literacy statistics

Various studies present different estimates of literacy levels within prisons based upon different definitions. 

  • An estimated 70% of prison inmates cannot read above 4th-grade level (ages 9-10)
  • 3 out of 5 inmates in American prisons are illiterate
  • 94% of prison inmates have a high-school diploma or less
  • This compares to 64% of all adults
  • 85% of all children who interact with the juvenile justice system are defined as low-literate
  • Interaction with the juvenile justice system increases the likelihood of a child going to prison later in life
  • It also reduces the probability of high school graduation
  • Prior to going to prison, inmates have an income 41% smaller on average than people who do not go to prison
  • High school dropouts are 5x more likely to go to prison than high school graduates
  • Two-thirds of students who cannot read to grade level by the end of grade 4 will end up on welfare or in prison
  • The likelihood of being arrested in their lifetime is 3.5 times higher for high school dropouts compared to high school graduates.
  • High school dropouts have a 63% higher chance of being incarcerated than individuals with four-year college degrees.

PIAAC reading levels

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) ranks literacy skills from levels 1-5. The NCES defines “Low English literacy” as Level 1 or below or who could not participate due to a language barrier or a cognitive or physical inability to be interviewed. “Mid or High English literacy” refers to those performing at PIAAC literacy proficiency Level 2 or above.

  • 29% of prison inmates have literary skills below level 2
  • This is compared to 19% of the US adult population as a whole

Literacy and re-offending

  • Prisoners who receive education to become literate in prison have a 16% chance of returning to prison
  • Those who do not receive this education have a 70% chance to return to prison
  • However, only 6% of inmates are currently receiving this type of education
  • Literacy education in prison costs the taxpayer approximately $25,000 per inmate per year
  • For juvenile offenders, the cost is $50,000 per inmate per year

Literacy rates per household versus those in prison