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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

Understanding the Complexities of Offenders’ Special Learning Needs

by Laura Weisel, Alan Toops, & Robin Schwarz
Compared to the general population, the offender population is known to have lower-than-average academic skills, with the vast majority not having completed high school (Haigler et al., 1994; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1988). To complicate this, the offender population has a significantly higher incidence of disabilities, including learning disabilities (LD) (Haigler et al., 1994; Mears & Aron, 2003; Steurer, 1996). Estimates of those in corrections facilities needing special education hover near 40 percent of juveniles and at least 50 percent of adult prisoners (Winters, 1997; Mears & Aron, 2003; Corley, 1996). Added to these challenges are high incidences of mental illness, poverty, and substance abuse among offenders (Califano, 2000; Winters, 1997).

Many of the physical and learning disabilities among the offender population were unsuspected and undiagnosed or, if noticed, were misdiagnosed (Mears & Aron, 2003). School has been a painful experience for many and their feelings of shame and anger at being unsuccessful in a world where academic achievement is highly valued run deep (Winters, 1997). In addition to learning problems, Winters notes, incarcerated youth “…usually have maladaptive, passive learning styles, and attribute their lack of academic success to extra-individual factors” (p. 2).

Based on these well-documented observations, Missouri and Ohio decided to institute holistic screenings to obtain specific information on offenders’ underlying learning challenges that can lead to more effective instructional programming. We examine here the initial findings from those two states and the related changes they are making in their corrections education systems to address offenders’ many learning issues.

Screening Procedure

Both the Missouri Department of Corrections and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction chose to administer PowerPath to Basic Learning (Weisel, 2003), a holistic diagnostic screening and intervention system. In Missouri, offenders entering the corrections system who met the criteria of being struggling learners were screened; in Ohio, offenders already in the system who met the criteria of being struggling learners were screened. The criteria include extremely weak reading and other academic skills (as indicated in Missouri by a reading level of 5.0 or below on the Wide Range Achievement Test [Jastak, 1998], or in Ohio by a score of below 220 on the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System, or CASAS [2005]), together with a score of 12 or higher on the Washington State Screening for Learning Disabilities (Giovengo et al., 1998).

A holistic diagnostic screening for struggling learners consists of evaluating the basic processing functions and skills needed to learn and perform academic and workplace tasks successfully (Weisel, 1998). These processing functions and skills include:

– Visual processing skills: visual–spatial orientation; memory; closure; discrimination; figure–ground discrimination, such as looking at a page filled with text and easily finding a specific word or sentence, or looking at a graph and focusing on a specific element.

– Visual motor integration: transferring visual information to motor output (the ability to copy).

– Auditory processing: (working) memory and comprehension.

– Basic reading encoding and decoding skills: sound–symbol associations, auditory and visual sequencing.

In an extended interview, offenders are asked to tell about themselves, their learning and work histories, family learning histories, medical issues that could affect learning, and other aspects of their lives that may be relevant to their difficulty in learning.

The Results

Missouri and Ohio collected interview and screening data on 510 offenders from 2003 through 2004 who met their states’ criteria for screening for special learning needs. These data reveal the complexity of the issues faced by these struggling learners.

Individuals were screened for visual and auditory function difficulties while wearing any prescribed glasses, contacts, and/or hearing aids. These data include results from those who had weaknesses despite using corrective lenses or hearing aids as well as results from those without any corrective lenses or hearing aids.

Screening for information processing difficulties yielded similarly revealing results.

Scotopic sensitivity greatly affects a learner’s capacity for sustained reading, fluency, and comprehension. Not surprisingly, it also compounds frustration levels. Slightly more than 50 percent of the offenders were identified as having moderate to severe scotopic sensitivity. Another 35 percent were identified as having mild scotopic sensitivity. The majority of offenders screened made phonological errors (problems correctly matching letters to sounds) in reading single words and spelling.

Of the offenders screened in the Missouri and Ohio systems, fewer than 20 percent did not have any learning difficulties with functions or information processing, 20 percent had no attention difficulties, and only 15 percent indicated no difficulties with scotopic sensitivity. In other words, 80 to 85 percent of these learners had documented function or processing challenges that interfered with their efforts to learn.

Offender History

Just as a majority of offenders screened had learning challenges, in interviews most offenders reported that their learning challenges were present from their earliest years in elementary school. More than 50 percent stated that they had been told they had a “learning disability,” with almost equal numbers reporting they had received special education, Title 1, or other remedial services while in school. The others had either never been told or helped. Whether or not their learning difficulties were ever actually identified, these offenders felt that their learning needs had not been fully recognized and/or that their learning needs were not met by the educational services they had received. They felt they had been left in the dark about why they struggled to learn and stated they had not been offered specific interventions they could use to become successful learners. Many described painful and frustrating interactions with family members and teachers that occurred when what was said or how it was said was misinterpreted.

How do these results compare with the incidence of such problems in the non-incarcerated population? Little agreement exists as to the incidence of learning problems in the adult basic education and literacy populations except that it is high. Estimates obtained from nonspecific screenings range from 30 to as high as 80 percent of the adult learners having learning challenges that have had a negative impact on their learning (see http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/faqs.html#learning ). Little is known in the wider scope of adult learning problems about vision, hearing, or other types of problems. Except where diagnostic screenings have been instituted by program initiative or where diagnostic screenings are mandated by the state, no systematic approach has been taken in adult education to identify the specific issues underlying academic challenges among adult learners.

After the Screening

In Missouri and Ohio, the screening process is the first step in the correction system for offenders who meet the criteria for being at risk of special learning needs. The two states have established somewhat different criteria for deciding which entering offenders are administered the diagnostic screenings. Each system is working to create a way for the screening results to be sent with the offender to his or her home institution for follow-up and to allow for access to needed interventions.

Having implemented a protocol for new admissions, Missouri and Ohio have recognized the importance of establishing models and protocols for conducting screenings at the institution level for current students in education programming. Ohio has decided to establish five model institution sites at which a process will be created with input from institution-based administrators and instructional staff. Elements from each of these model sites will be adapted and used in the implementation of institution-based screening protocols that the entire education system can use.

Missouri has chosen to implement screenings for students with special learning needs at all institutions. Each institution uses special education and literacy staff, trained in implementing the screenings and interventions, to support institution-based screenings. Education administrators, in turn, are designing local approaches to support screening and ensure implementation of methods that use the information gained from screenings to accommodate learners’ special learning needs. Both Missouri’s Central Office of Special Education and the literacy administrators provide additional training sessions and on-site technical assistance as needed.

With one year of experience, both systems are looking at revising their initial roll-out plans to ensure that individual institutions identify the special learning needs of offenders already in the system.

At the state level, service collaboration agreements are beginning to be discussed with health, mental health, and recovery services so that these departments can address issues that have contributed to and grown from the learning challenges identified in the data. State departments are often so-called silos — they tend to run autonomously and independently of each other. Moving to a holistic service approach for offenders with special learning needs will require that departments collaborate in new ways at the state level. Only then can collaborative actions at the institutional level follow.

Part of the focus of the collaborative efforts in Ohio and Missouri corrections systems is on creating ways of supporting professional development to ensure that instructors can learn and demonstrate the skills needed to do the following:

– breaking down tasks into manageable pieces

– applying selected instructional accommodations

– managing time and selecting materials

– transferring learning from one situation to another

– are active

– are project-based

– use multiple ways of learning

– rely on groups of students co-planning learning sessions and working collaboratively: participating in evaluating the success of the planned instructional time and identifying ways to improve the next session.


The data from the two state initiatives provide a clearer picture of the challenges facing offenders struggling to learn. As a result, new approaches are being tried to address the systemic factors that have kept struggling learners struggling. New questions are being asked that will, when addressed, drive services that are based on real, identified needs instead of assumptions. As these two states continue in their efforts, more offenders who have not been successful with learning will be able to find success. They will be able to learn needed academic skills, skills for better management of life, and ultimately have a better chance at sustaining employment after their release from prison.

The experiences and examples of Missouri and Ohio will provide models that other states’ departments of correction education can use as they establish policies and procedures to institute diagnostic screening for the most vulnerable offenders. Specific professional development activities that enable instructors to identify, understand, and provide better interventions for offenders with special learning needs will undoubtedly be included. States will find ways to shift the paradigm of education services to align with these data and other research findings on the elements for success in learning, life, and employment for persons with multiple learning challenges (Raskind et al., 1999; Mears & Arons, 2003).


Bureau of Justice Statistics, (1988). “Education and correctional populations.” National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (1988). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/ecp.htm)

CASAS Life Skills (2005). Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System. San Diego, CA.

Califano, J. (2000). Substance Abuse and Learning Disabilities: Peas in a Pod or Apples and Oranges. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Corley, M.A. (1996). “Correctional education programs for adults with learning disabilities.” Linkages 3, 2. Washington, DC: National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center.

Giovengo, M., Moore, E., & Young, G. (1998). “Screening and assessment results of the learning disabilities initiative: Identification of individuals with learning disabilities in the job opportunities and basic skills program.” In Vogel, S. & Reder, S. (eds.). Learning Disabilities, Literacy, and Adult Education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing, pp. 133-154.

Haigler, K., Harlow, C., O’Connor, P., & Campbell, A. (1994). Literacy Behind Prison Walls. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Jastak, J. (1998). Wide Range Achievement Test. Wilmington, DE: Jastak Associates, Inc.

Mears, D., & Aron, L. (2003). Addressing the Needs of Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System: The Current State of Knowledge. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Raskind, M., Goldberg, R., Higgins, E., & Herman, K. (1999). “Patterns of change and predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: Results from a twenty-year longitudinal study.” Learning Disabilities: Research & Practice, 14, 35-49.

Steurer, S. (1996) “Correctional education: A worthwhile investment.” Linkages, 3,2. Washington, DC: National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center.

Weisel, L. (1998). “PowerPath to adult basic learning: A diagnostic screening system for adults who are at high risk of being diagnosed as having learning disabilities.” In Vogel, S. & Reder, S. (eds.). Learning Disabilities, Literacy, and Adult Education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing, pp. 133–154.

Weisel, L. (2003). PowerPath to Basic Learning. Columbus, OH: The TLP Group, Inc.

Winters, C. (1997). Learning Disabilities, Crime, Delinquency, and Special Education Placement. Adolescence. Retrieved on June 15, 2005, from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles

About the Authors
Laura Weisel has 30 years of experience in community and institutional-based adult basic, literacy, special education, and mental health services as an instructor, program administrator, researcher, trainer, consultant, and author of PowerPath to Basic Learning, an intake, diagnostic screening and intervention system.

Alan Toops has spent the last 30 years as a corrections educator in Ohio’s prison system with positions as instructor, school principal, and assistant superintendent of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s school system. Currently he is executive director of the Ohio Literacy Network and the Correction Education Specialist with The TLP Group.

Robin Schwarz has been a teacher of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) for nearly 40 years and a specialist in learning disabilities for more than 35 years. She is now a partner with the TLP Group, broadening PowerPath’s scope to include multicultural students and ESOL initiatives.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL