AUSTIN’If you can read and understand this column, chances are you’ve never been in prison. And if you have, chances are you’re not going back. A study done by the Criminal Justice Policy Council, a state agency charged with researching prison trends, has demonstrated a link between the ability to read and the likelihood of an ex-convict returning to prison. According to the study, high-risk (young property crime offenders) nonreaders who learned to read while incarcerated had a 37 percent lower recidivism rate. Not that the ability to read is a guaranteed “Stay Out of Jail” card. Nineteen percent of the reading high-risk offenders still managed to get back to prison. But with nonreaders the return rate was 30 percent, the study said. Beyond the mere ability to read, overall educational level also is a major factor in recidivism. Inmates with a ninth grade educational level or higher had an 18 percent lower return rate than those with a fourth grade education. Knowing a convict’s educational level is almost as fundamental as knowing what they are up for. “When a new inmate arrives, he or she spends three weeks at the diagnostic unit undergoing every kind of test there is,” said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Glen Castlebury. “We want to know who the heck we’ve got.” One of the many tests assesses the inmate’s education level. That, of course, quickly shows whether they can read. “The average educational level claimed by an arriving inmate is 10.6 years,” he said. “The average actual educational achievement demonstrated by testing is 7.5 years.” In other words, most crooks aren’t as smart as they think they are. If an inmate’s achievement level is less than seven years, Castlebury said, education automatically becomes the prison system’s top priority for that particular inmate. “Teaching them literacy takes precedence over work,” he said. Just why being able to read makes such a big difference on whether a convict will stay clean once he’s back in the free world is a multi-faceted consideration. One reason, however, is economics. “If someone can’t read or write, they’re not going to be able to get a job,” Castlebury said. Those who can’t get money in normal ways often turn to crime. The study on the importance of reading, “Impact of Educational Achievement of Inmates in the Windham School District on Recidivism,” is only one of several completed within the last year that shows prison rehabilitation programs are working. “This success is a modern-day phenomenon for Texas,” said Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman A.M. Mac Stringfellow. “It marks a maturing of programs and policies which effectively started only with completion of the huge prison expansion six years ago.” A key to the success, Castlebury said, is the link between the institutional and parole aspects of TDCJ. Since the merger of the Board of Pardons and Paroles into TDCJ in 1990, the two components have vastly improved the system, Castlebury said. “Parole used to be tied to a certain date,” he said. “Now, more and more, it’s upon completion of an educational program.” To view the recent studies online, go to www.cjpc.state.tx.us.