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Correlation Between Dyslexia and Criminal Behavior; First Step Act to Require Screening, Treatment

by Douglas Ankney

“When you can’t read, you see no other way out,” said actor Ameer Baraka. “As a kid, I used to ask God to make me a drug dealer, because I knew in order to be someone in life you have to learn to read, and I couldn’t.” In grade school, Baraka had a miserable time. Whenever the teacher asked him to read aloud, his classmates would laugh because he couldn’t make out the words. 

Spelling tests were on Fridays, and Baraka skipped school to hide in the hallways of the housing project where he lived. By the sixth grade, he was fed up; he decided to drop out and start selling cocaine. At age 23, he was in prison for a drug offense. But after being diagnosed with dyslexia and finally earning his GED, he said, “I started viewing myself in a different way. When I learned to read, it freed me.”

No national studies have been conducted regarding the prevalence of dyslexia among prisoners, but a study of Texas prisoners in 2000 found that 48 percent were dyslexic and two-thirds struggled with reading comprehension. A 2014 study by the Department of Education found that about a third of prisoners surveyed at 98 prisons struggled to pick out basic information while reading simple texts. According to Dr. Kathryn Moody, one of the researchers in the Texas study, around 20% of the general population has a language-based learning disability, which includes dyslexia.

Most prisons don’t screen for dyslexia but that may be changing.

After Baraka taught himself to read while incarcerated, he obtained his GED. And when his almost 60-year prison sentence was reduced to four years, he went on to become an American success story. He is the author of a memoir titled The Life I Chose – The Streets Lied to Me. He was profiled by Oprah Winfrey, and has appeared in more than 30 feature films and TV shows, including “American Horror Story.” He has also testified before Congress on the issue of dyslexia, and was the keynote speaker at the Central Texas Dyslexia Conference. 

Baraka founded an organization called the Dyslexia Awareness Foundation (DAF), which, together with The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity as well as the world’s largest education and testing company – Pearson plc -- launched the first-ever Dyslexia Diagnosis Day on October 2, 2017. Further, the Dyslexia Resource Center has screened 100 male and 100 female prisoners at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where more than half the prisoners are thought to have dyslexia. 

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy pushed for screening prisoners for dyslexia, which was included in the First Step Act that passed in December 2018. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.1; Jan. 2019, p.34]. The Act includes provisions that require the Attorney General to implement a dyslexia screening program for federal prisoners, and to “incorporate programs designed to treat dyslexia into the evidence-based recidivism reduction programs or productive activities required to be implemented” by the statute.

Before becoming a lawmaker, Senator Cassidy was a doctor and encountered many illiterate prisoners while running clinics in three Louisiana facilities. “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 noted. A study by the Rand Corporation found that prisoners who participated in educational programs were 43 percent less likely to commit crimes following their release.

Dyslexia is the number one cause of illiteracy. The condition inhibits the ability to associate sounds with corresponding letters, and in some cases it causes people to perceive letters in transposed order. It is a lifelong condition but can be diagnosed and treated. Since illiteracy is a known risk factor in criminal behavior, it was sound policy to address dyslexia in the First Step Act.

Unfortunately the Act only applies to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), while the majority of prisoners in the U.S. are held in state prison systems. Most state prisons do not conduct dyslexia screening, according to Cassidy. And the screening for federal prisoners has yet to go into effect.

“I don’t see a lot of good faith in implementing this law right now,” said U.S. Senator Mike Lee. Congress has failed to fully fund the First Step Act, and President Trump did not request enough money in his 2020 budget proposal to fund all of the Act’s provisions. However, a BOP spokesperson stated, “The Department of Justice and [BOP] are committed to fully implementing the First Step Act, and to doing so within the deadlines in the statute.” 

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Sources: motherjones.com, wwltv.com, the hill.com, educationupdate.com

Note: This is a corrected version of the original article, based on information recieved from Senator Cassidy's office.