Juvenile Detention

Cooperative Effort Between Reading Connections Inc. and Brown County Juvenile Detention

In the summer of 2001, the staff of Reading Connections Inc. approached the superintendent of the Brown County Juvenile Detention Center, Cpl. John Mitchell, with a proposal of a partnership through which we would be able to improve the reading levels of his inmates. We theorized that an improvement in reading levels would then result in an increase in self-esteem, a greater ability to perform in their classroom structure, and a decrease in recidivism rates. It was decided at that time to perform a trial-run of the proposed program by which we could chart the results and determine the feasibility of a long-term partnership.

During the months of July and August, 2001, eight instructors from Reading Connections volunteered approximately 172 hours to help the juveniles improve their sight-word reading abilities. We worked with the clients five days a week, and then many of them practiced between their lessons. With this intensity, we found the results to be very impressive: the clients were in the program for anywhere from one week to six-and-a-half weeks with an average duration of 2 ½ to 3 weeks; in that time they made gains of anywhere from eight months to four years, one month. The “rate-of-gain” number for that time averaged out at a 48.5. (See “results” section for explanation of rate-of-gain.) Obviously, a child would not be able to gain 48.5 years of ability in one year of instruction, but this high number demonstrates how starved their brains are for a method that matches the way they process information. Once they get the instruction in a way that their brain can deal with, they can quickly make large gains where they once struggled to make any gains.

Based on the high success rate and the data gleaned from our summer volunteer program, Superintendent Mitchell submitted a proposal to the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance to set up a one-year program at the facility. A $50,000 grant was approved, and we began our work on January 2, 2002. The results of the testing for the 2002 program are as follows:


    • 73.3% of the clients were reading below their grade level.
    • The average deficit for those who were behind in their reading was three years and three months.
    • The worst deficit noted was a senior who was reading at a first grade, seventh month level, which showed a deficit of ten years and three months.
    • Based on information stating that text books are written two to three years above grade level, 84% of the clients were in need of assistance.

    Rate-of-Gain (based on 147 clients with both pre and post-tests)

    • Average rate-of-gain number was 50.6 (as compared with the summer volunteer program rate-of-gain of 48.5)
    • Highest rate of gain number was 509.6 (a ninth grade student who went from an eighth grade, first month level to an adult reading level in three days)
    • Lowest rate-of-gain number was a zero (a tenth grade student who was reading at a beginning ninth grade level and who made no progress in the three days she was in the program.)

    Obviously, there are outside factors that affect the individual results of the clients, such as willingness to cooperate, mood (apprehension of up-coming court dates, etc.), amount of practice time outside of lessons, and so on. Yet, even given such circumstances, we feel very strongly about the validity of our data. Not only are the deficit and rate-of-gain numbers comparable from the 2001 trial-run summer program to the year 2002 data, but the subjective data gleaned from the clients and staff strongly support the drastic increases in short durations of time. The following comments detail subjective data that shows the improvements in the juveniles’ reading abilities, self-esteem, and behavior:

      Comments from Staff

      • Superintendent John Mitchell: Cpl Mitchell has noticed that the inmates are showing a greater interest in reading now, so they are occupying their time with something constructive (practicing their lesson material or reading a book) rather than acting out or destroying property. Before bringing the Reading Connections Inc. program into the facility, they exchanged the library books that are kept in the facility only once a week, and now they do it twice a week. He also relates that he has gone into the facility late in the evenings to check on how things are going and has actually found some of the kids sitting voluntarily in their cells to read—that is something he says he has never seen before. Overall he has noticed a decline in the need for disciplinary actions in the facility.
      • In-house school instructor: “I think the reading program is great for the kids. I have noticed certain students develop more confidence to read orally in class. I believe the kids are excited to see their improvement on a daily basis. The kids seem to be much more willing to read for homework assignments. More students pick reading as their homework versus math or science.” He related the story of one young man who was one of the worst readers in his class; after having been in detention and working with Reading Connections for some time, he actually volunteered to orally read two paragraphs in a class project. This teacher also noted that, while working one-on-one with his students, many of them tell him that the program has helped their reading progress.
      • In-house school instructor: “Reading Connections has continued to help students improve their reading skills. Many students have commented that the skills they have learned will definitely help them to pronounce new words. In addition, students have reflected positively on the program and its contribution in bringing them exposure to new vocabulary terms. Overall, I feel strongly that the program is a good addition to the services provided at Brown County Jail.”
      • Corrections Officers: The clients have been requesting to use the library much more often, and they have been choosing to read books instead of magazines. Many clients have even begun to choose much longer books. They also spend more of their time writing letters to friends and family.

      As for the clients’ behavior and attitudes, the officers are also noticing marked differences. As the clients progress through the program, the officers have been noticing improvements in their self-esteem and confidence. The clients actually “brag” to them about their progress. Many of the clients look forward to attending their lessons, and some want to continue attending lessons even after they have graduated the program (for some it was to receive the reward of extra television time, but for others it was because they truly wanted to continue working with their instructor.) It has also been noted that the number of severe incidents in the facility have gone down and that the children are following directions much better.

      • Mary S., Reading Connections Inc. instructor: Mary has noticed that the clients generally are apprehensive and negative at first, but after only a few days they generally tend to feel more comfortable and are more willing to put forth the effort. Eventually most of the clients get to the point that they really do not mind attending lessons, and some of them even look forward to lessons.

      Mary has also gotten feedback from the corrections officers and the clients that the clients are reading more at night when they are in their cells. For example, one 14 year old boy (who initially was a behavior problem) told her that he had completed a book the night before, and that it was the first book that he had ever read by himself. He was very excited about this fact and about finding another book to begin. Another client came into his lesson very tired, and when Mary asked him why he was so tired, he explained that he had stayed up late the night before reading a book about the Civil War. Many other clients have been asking for permission to take the books (those that she has been working on with them) back to their cells so they can keep reading because they are so intrigued by what will happen next.

        Client Comments

        • Boy, age 16: Reading Connections helped me out a great deal. It helped me sound out letters and vowels. It brought my reading up a great deal. It makes me want to read more and try harder words. I’m happy I did this program.
        • Boy, age 13: I think this program actually helped me because last night I did not want to go to bed because I wanted to read the book called The Child Called It and I finished the book of my dreams. I wanted to read it ever since I was ten when I heard of it. But you actually really helped me a lot. Thank you for helping me.
        • Girl, age 14: I think Reading Connections helped me a lot. I think if we had a Reading Connections in every public school I think a lot of people who have trouble reading I think their reading level would go up.
        • Girl, age 14: I think Reading Connections should be in the schools because it helped me a lot and I think it’s a good program. It should be in schools because it helped me and I think it would help a lot of other people get better at reading.
        • Girl, age 14: What I think about Reading Connections is that it’s great. I mean. . . when I first started I hated it, but now I LOVE it, because it has helped me read a lot better ! I’m almost at my regular grade!!
        • Girl, age 14: At first I didn’t like it. I thought it was stupid but at the end I realized it was all right and that it actually helped me read better. So now I think it is a good thing.
        • Girl, age 16: Reading Connections was a very helpful source for me. I improved a lot in a 72-hour period. She was very friendly towards me, as well as helpful. This is a good place to have such helping work done. Thanks for your help.
        • Boy, age 12: This was really fun to do. I like it a lot. To practice the words you give me. I like when I get to practice the 10 times and get 30 minutes of TV time. I like it very much.
        • Boy, age 16: My experiences with the program are all positive. It’s helped my spelling and reading level. Also, if I don’t feel in the mood to do the work, at least it passes time quicker in here.
        • Boy, age 13: I am an inmate at the Brown County Juvenile Detention Center. I personally think Reading Connections is a great thing. I am in the 8th grade and am reading at a 12th grade reading level. Reading Connections helps me read a lot better. I think it’s a great skill building method for those who have trouble reading or that just want to improve on their reading skills. Every time I came to Reading Connections my test scores were better and better. That’s how I feel about Reading Connections. Reading Connections is great.
        • Girl, age 15: I like the reading program because it kept me busy during the day and it is fun to learn new words that you don’t know.
        • Girl, age 15: I liked Reading Connections a lot. It helped me become a better reader. My reading level went up two grades in one week. I’m glad I got to do Reading Connections, I feel like I’m a better reader now.
        • Based on the excellent testing results and the changes seen in the Detention Facility, Reading Connections Inc. again partnered with Superintendent Mitchell to submit a grant to the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance for the year 2003. The full requested amount of $48,600 was awarded so that our work can continue throughout the current year. Due to grant specifications and money availability, it appears as though the Office of Justice Assistance may not be able to fund this program beyond the year 2003, so we will be looking to private funding sources to continue helping the juveniles.