Tackling illiteracy in CDCR’s incarcerated population

According to the Center for American Progress, (Alpha Ciallo May 28, 2020), “Adult illiteracy directly affects an individual’s employment options, likelihood to live in poverty, likelihood to be incarcerated, access to adequate health care and health outcomes, and life expectancy. Generational illiteracy makes it increasingly difficult to escape these circumstances, and millions of Americans face this reality every day.”

As per the California Penal Code 2053.1, CDCR shall implement in every state prison literacy programs that are designed to ensure that upon parole inmates are able to achieve the goals contained in this section. The Division of Rehabilitative Programs accomplishes this through the Office of Correctional Education (OCE).

OCE offers Adult Basic Education (ABE), Adult Secondary Education (ASE), College, Career Technical Education (CTE), Distance Learning (eLearning), Student Support Services, and Transitions at each of the 34 state prisons.

Providing incarcerated individuals with literacy to prepare them for college and/or a career is part of a broader CDCR effort to increase public safety and reduce recidivism. One of main ways that this is accomplished is through efforts to improve inmate literacy levels. Adult schools throughout the state meet this goal through the ABE/ASE academic programs, computer-aided instruction, integrated education and training, library literacy programs, use of research-based instructional practices, and the Peer Literacy Mentor Program.

The Peer Literacy Mentor Program (PLMP), which began in 2019, is designed to provide literacy services for adult offenders who do not have a high school diploma or high school equivalency (HSD/HSE) with the support of literacy mentors (LM). The mentors are trained by the literacy teachers to provide tutoring services to students in literacy program. The effectiveness of peer literacy is evinced by the fact that seven GEDs were earned by literacy students in Fiscal Year 2020/2021.

“I believe that anything is possible if there’s a will, and here in prison there’s a bunch of wills just looking for a way,” said Baca, a mentor.

Likewise, literacy mentor Rodriguez sees his mission as helping “others aspire to be their ideal versions of themselves.”

Schools throughout the state also support literacy through computer aided instruction. In 2017, OCE made a tremendous leap forward by providing these systems of support in CTE courses. This was followed up in 2019 for ABE/ASE academic programs.

At this time, through the support of Enterprise Information Services, OCE provides teachers and students with access to several online tools focused on improving literacy and numeracy:

  • Achieve3000 Math
  • Aztec Plus
  • National Geographic/Edge
  • Reading Horizons/Elevate
  • Spark3000
  • CyberHigh

Additionally, in 2021-22, OCE partnered with the Division of Adult Institutions and Enterprise Information Systems to re-purpose standalone computers for use by students in conservation (fire) camps.

These computers provide students with access to computer-based tutoring in the four core content areas necessary to pass the General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency test.

Aztec Publishing, recognized by GED Pearson VUE as the most effective test-preparation tool for GED, provides the software and hardware to make this possible. Through an alternative educational delivery model, students receive formal independent-study assignments from a teacher at their assigned institution, and participating students prepare to take the GED test. Teachers work with students and camp officers remotely, monitor student progress, and confirm preparation to successfully take the GED. Candidates are transferred to a nearby institution or fire camp to take the GED.

In 2020-2021, OCE began implementation of four research-based instructional practices including academic language development, structured student interactions, graphic organizers, and checking for understanding. These practices were selected in 2019 by consensus by all education administrators after studying research on generational poverty, toxic stress, and various meta-analyses of effective instructional strategies. Each of the identified practices responds to identified learning needs of incarcerated students as they work together to heal learning and processing functions of the brain.

Since fall 2019, OCE’s six academic coaches have provided on-going professional development and one-on-one coaching on the four practices to institution academic teachers. The academic coaches have also guided regional professional learning communities of teachers in instructional design based on student assessment data and the four research-based practices.

OCE is about to embark on a new component of this critical initiative by making it possible for site education administrators to conduct informal observations of instruction which are documented via an online tool. The tool is intended to provide teachers with immediate, actionable feedback based on the four practices so that they can continue to improve the quality and effectiveness of instruction.

Integrated Education and Training

This year, OCE implemented an Integrated Education and Training program for English learners. The program requires students to be dual-enrolled in CTE and ABE. An academic teacher collaborates with the CTE teacher to provide content-specific vocabulary and language development instruction. The goal is for all students to have equitable access to the CTE curriculum so that they are able to fully participate, complete tasks, and earn certification in the trades.

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

Through ESSA, teachers assist youthful offenders under the age of 22 with both learning and life skills. Students receive additional individualized support and assistance with literacy and GED preparation as a focus. Students improve upon both their linguistic and mathematical literacy skills to prepare for successful reentry to society. This is particularly important because youthful offenders can often times be negatively influenced by peers. They provide career counseling and help them to develop a plan for their rehabilitation during incarceration, and transition back into the communities to function independently.

Student Support Services

The services provide students with cognitive, physical, and mental health disabilities tutoring support to prepare for successful completion of their HSD/HSE and CTE certifications.

Varied instructional methods include group discussion, self-reflection, researching, note taking, charting and graphing, writing, journaling, mock interview, and simulations. Beyond the program goals, students are expected to exercise and improve upon both their linguistic and mathematical literacy skills to prepare for successful reentry to society.


One of the most important functions of any library is literacy. In each institution, library patrons are able to access a wide variety of genres including but not limited to: non-fiction, classics, fantasy, and thrillers. Additionally, the library supports literacy through activities that include sustained reading and writing, such as book reports and book clubs, research, and class activities through a collaboration with classroom teachers.

OCE staff is excited to continue myriad literacy programs to support students inside and outside of the classroom. As mentor Zavala noted, “Learning does not stop once school is let out, it continues into the buildings and does not stop until the lights go out.”

Read more rehabilitation stories.

Follow us on YouTubeFacebook and Twitter.