Serving Clients in Knox, Blount, Anderson, Loudon, Sevier & Roane Counties

Literacy in Juvenile Detention Centers

According to a November 2015 article in The Tennessean, roughly 2,500 children and teenagers from across Tennessee come through Knox County’s juvenile detention center each year. Juvenile inmates are accused of all sorts of crimes, some as serious as murder and others as (relatively) minor as shoplifting. Some of these inmates stay at the center for just a weekend, as the Knox County center is not intended to be a long-term facility. Yet others can spend months or even years there.

girl book

Knox County’s Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center prides itself on rehabilitating children, rather than “punishing” inmates. Superintendent Richard Bean has said publicly that he thinks of the kids under care of the facility as his own, and that the facility is supposed to work less like a prison and more like a group home. He says he has discovered in his several decades of experience that punitive measures are ineffective.

Rehabilitation was likely in mind when the detention center established a library.  No one disputes that promoting literacy in any person, no matter the age or background, is an important step in preparing them to be productive community members. How much more important is it to encourage literacy in children incarcerated at the Juvenile Service Center?

According to a 2016 article on recidivism and education, written by researchers at Bowling Green State University, “no single cause accounts for all delinquency and no single pathway leads to a life of crime… [however,] one of six factors identified as important predictors of delinquency among our nation’s youth was poor educational performance (Lieb, 1994).” Hodges, Giuliotti and Porpotage (1994, p. 1) concurred, “one recognized characteristic of juveniles incarcerated in correctional and detention facilities is their poor experience with elementary and secondary education.” Hodges reports that our country’s average juvenile inmate is in the ninth grade but reads at only a third or fourth-grade level. That point was echoed in a recent interview with staff at the Juvenile Service Center:  “In my experience, these kids are reading at between a second and seventh grade level.” 

So, Held Law Firm staff decided to lead efforts to promote juvenile literacy.

“We know based on scientific evidence that first, literacy is important for everyone; second, literacy rates are staggeringly low among juvenile detainees; and third, a low literacy rate is one determining factor in whether a juvenile inmate will go on to lead a successful life upon their release or become an inmate of an adult facility.

Held Law Firm’s Advocacy Project leader, Faith Held, continues:  “So far, and based on feedback from Juvenile Service Center staff, research on juvenile literacy, and the experiences of our clients, Held Law Firm offers the following suggestions:

  1. Right now, reading is often not seen as relevant or interesting by many Service Center inmates. We should study and find ways to encourage the inmates to enjoy reading.
  2. Toward that goal, we should develop a library of books that deal with age appropriate topics but are written on a 2-7th grade reading level.  Such books are already used by Knox County’s Adult Education program. Programs that teach English as a second language are another good source of reading material. Finally, books that are adapted from broadcast media that are popular with teenagers can introduce them to the concept of reading for fun, because readers can follow the story-line due to their familiarity with the movie or television show.
  3. To develop a successful literacy program in the Juvenile Service Center, we need to listen to the experiences of everyone trying to help the children detained there, while promoting an ultimate goal of increasing literacy of juvenile detainees. 

Through the Advocacy Project, Held Law Firm is committed to helping people both in and out of the courtroom who are impacted by the policies and practices of our system of justice. Taking concrete steps to improve the literacy rate in our juvenile justice system can have a dramatic impact on whether a child becomes a free and productive member of a society, or just graduates to “big kid” jail when they become an adult. Stay tuned for news on our efforts!