We often talk about books as escapes from mental prisons, but they have a place in physical ones as well. In US prisons, libraries play a valuable role as centers of entertainment and knowledge for the over 2.25 million adults incarcerated. They also decrease the likelihood that inmates will reoffend once they are released.
Prison libraries can take multiple forms. In some of the largest correctional facilities, libraries fill entire rooms. In others, the library consists of only a single cart of books pushed to various cells. Some prisons have budgets specifically for stocking their libraries. Others rely only on whatever book donations they receive.
Over the years, the American Library Association has done several surveys of prison librarians and brought back assessments of their collections. In one survey, these librarians described the following:
- “Small but well balanced collection, similar to a public library
- Heavy use of homegrown newspapers
- Prisoners love studying the human body
- We cater to the GED program and the 2 year college program
- General fiction, inspirational books, humor
- Wide range of books that reflect the interest of all ethnic groups
- Collection built around ethnic interest and reading levels
- Career oriented software”
The patrons they served loved books by Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Donald Goines, African American authors, and authors of Westerns.
Ultimately 95% of inmates will reenter broader society, and prison libraries provide them with the skills to do so successfully. Libraries allow these individuals to learn about employment and job seeking skills, and as Daniel Marcou, a correctional librarian at Hennepin County Library, states, “I wanted to convey to residents that reading and information can help to free all from our past or places where we might not want to be in life.”
Quartz recently released an article on the relationship between access to books and the rate of recidivism; they concluded that reading reduced reoffense rates. For inmates in the Changing Lives through Literature program, participants had a recidivism rate less than half that of inmates in the general population. The founder of the program, English Professor Bob Waxler, asserts that this change occurs because reading “teaches empathy, complexity, how to face shame, and personal dignity. By relating to fictional characters, readers shift perspectives and make choices they wouldn’t otherwise.” The Rand Corporation’s 2013 study on education and prison reform agrees that reading and education programs do make a difference in the ways that currently incarcerated people approach the world and life after prison. Even when removing the human element and looking strictly at the financial aspect of these programs, education is very cost effective for prisons; for every $1 spent on education and reading, incarceration costs decrease by $4-$5.
All of this is to say that access to books and education provides new opportunities and perspectives to people. Though may of us don’t consider libraries to be connected to prisons, they do exist in correctional facilities, and their presence there does matter. Even in the darkest of mental and physical places, reading makes a difference.
Daniel Ramirez, “Alcatraz – Prison Library,” 2010.
Jordan Miller, “Captive Browses Books at Camp 5 Guantanomo,” Miami Herald, 2011.