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.