Dyslexia under diagnosed in Prison Population. Justice system failing these Prisoners.

By Samantha Michaels, Mother Jones

No national studies have been done to show the prevalence of dyslexia among prisoners, but the little research that exists at the state level suggests the rates are quite high: A 2000 study of Texas prisoners found that about half were likely dyslexic, and about two-thirds struggled with reading comprehension. A 2014 study by the Education Department found that about a third of incarcerated people surveyed at 98 prisons struggled to pick out basic information while reading simple texts. Still, most prisons historically haven’t conducted widespread screenings for dyslexia—making it hard for prisoners with the reading disorder to make up lost ground while they’re behind bars. 

LightFieldStudios/iStock/Getty

LightFieldStudios/iStock/Getty

That may finally be changing. A major criminal justice reform bill that passed Congress in December, the First Step Act, will require federal prisons to screen for dyslexia at intake, and to provide services that will help people learn to read if they are diagnosed. This component of the law was pushed by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who encountered many illiterate patients while running clinics in three Louisiana prisons as a doctor before he became a lawmaker. His wife, Dr. Laura Cassidy, tested men for dyslexia in two of those prisons in 2018, and more than half were thought to have the condition.

By helping to diagnose more people, Sen. Cassidy says the First Step Act will make it easier for them to find employment after their release. “If someone learns to read, they’re less likely to end up in prison and more likely to be a productive member of society,” he says. A study by the Rand Corp. found that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to commit crimes later on.

But federal prisons account for a relatively small slice of the country’s incarcerated population: roughly 171,000 people, compared to more than 1.3 million in state prisons. The First Step Act won’t affect state prisons, most of which do not conduct widespread dyslexia screenings for their inmates, according to staffers in Sen. Cassidy’s office who have studied the issue. And the incidence of learning disorders may be even higher in state facilities, which hold fewer white-collar offenders and more high school dropouts. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons says 40 percent of state inmates lack a high school diploma, compared with about 27 percent of federal offenders.)

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