Like anyone else, prison inmates cannot be forced to learn if they really don't want to.

What's more, education is no cure-all for the high crime rates that keep the prisons and jails around the country packed with inmates beyond the capacity for which such facilities were designed.Even so, the public should consider the new effort to raise the educational level of the nation's 58,000 federal prison inmates a sound investment rather than an exercise in unrealistic idealism.

Likewise, the inmates themselves should consider the new program a reward, not a punishment, even though they can be penalized for refusing to go along with it.

Starting next year, the U.S. Department of Justice will require federal inmates to attend classes until they can read at the 12th grade level and receive a high school equivalency diploma. Inmates who refuse to complete the program will be assigned the lowest-paying and most menial jobs in the federal prisons.

The new program, which is based on pilot tests in 10 federal prisons around the country, is simply the logical next step beyond previous programs that initially required inmates to learn sixth grade reading and mathematics skills, then raised the standards to mastery of eighth grade academic skills.

On the basis of all this experience, prison authorities are understandably convinced that mastering the basic skills of literacy can make life in prison safer for staff and inmates alike and reduce the chances of inmates getting sent back behind bars after they are released.

As the world becomes more complex, education becomes increasingly essential to get and keep a job and to succeed in other aspects of modern life. In any case, anything that reduces the chances of released inmates' getting into trouble and returning to prison is a wise investment.