Image via Prison Library Project
"New York is shelving its prison law libraries," reported the Wall Street Journal this week as the New York Prison Commission is allowing county-run prisons to discontinue libraries. Many don't consider prison libraries to be a necessity, and neither does the Supreme Court - in the 1990s the court ruled that prisoners do not have a "freestanding right to a law library." And while this might sound like nothing for the general public to feel concern over, we should remember that prisoners are serving a penalty of time in a system meant to rehabilitate them and eventually release them back into society. We should want the people who have served time in jail to be as fully capable to become law-abiding citizens as possible. Education is a powerful tool - it alleviates ignorance and opens up the mind. And in prisons, the only access to education is through libraries. There might be televisions, but there is no internet access and little contact with the outside. Books are the primary tools for self-education.
"Prison is a bare-bones world of isolation. Other than occasional calls home, letters and family visits, the prisoner is totally separated from the world outside the walls. There is little to distinguish one day from the next. World events become foreign and remote because the prisoner is so disconnected that prison itself becomes their world, their universe. There is little or no rehabilitation or education available to a prisoner. There are no incentives for bettering yourself. The prisoner is warehoused in a mind numbing world of sensory deprivation until his/her sentence is up, then cast back into society, often ill prepared." -Submitted by John Evans, Bostick State Prison, Georgia via Prison Book Program Blog.
Most prisons do have libraries, and besides legal materials, these libraries also stock fiction and non-fiction books, including educational materials (such as how to obtain a GED), and these materials are usually donated from public libraries. Earlier this year in a class on collection development in libraries, employees of the Prison Library Project spoke about their experiences with books in libraries. Two of the members had been incarcerated and described reading as a means of education, connection with others (through book clubs), and maintaining sanity while in prison. Their testimonies reminded me that prisoners are human. Learning and stimulation are human needs that books can meet.
Books are often used in juvenile detention centers to engage young people and hopefully transform their lives. Books Beyond Bars is a project out of UCLA that donates books to a juvenile detention center and conducts weekly book discussions with the teenagers living there. While it might be more socially acceptable to rehabilitate children who have committed crimes through literature and education, the power to transform is not lost on adults.
Probably the most famous prisoner to ever turn his life around through reading is Malcom X. But almost anyone who has ever read a great book knows the power of words to transport, engage, and shed light on dark corners of the psyche. If books can change people, they can certainly change prisoners. And those in government know this. Public libraries receive funding because they are deemed important by taxpayers. One City One Book programs have sprung up across the country because there is power in literature that can bridge divides among people and communities. State-funded Early Literacy Task Forces are dedicated to ensuring all children's intellectual access to reading. We know that this is important. We know that reading changes lives. So why withhold this from prisoners? If the goal of incarceration is to reacclimate prisoners to society, shouldn't we care that there are at least resources available to encourage learning and growth?
Aside from the fact that prisoners have rights to legal counsel, (whether that is accomplished through a library or not) when they are released the rest of society has a right to live among other law-abiding citizens. Producing better people from correctional facilities should be a priority so that cycles of crime and violence don't continue. I love books enough to believe that this is possible through reading and learning. And not just the classics - even completely meritless books by literary standards can offer people a glimpse into their own lives or a fantasy, can allow a reader to see patterns in typical story lines and characters, and can build confidence in the reader if perhaps she has not read a book in years. Reading changes people in one way or another. Words are powerful and they can set us free.
Image via Prison Library Project
Four walls can never hold me in
They are physical, like bone and skin
The body trapped behind this wall
cannot contain my soul at all
Imagination sets me free
Beyond the fence that surrounds me.
No bricks can ever stop my mind.
No bars can keep my thoughts confined
I can go deep inside myself
Like a dusty book on a shelf
Another world exists inside
My heart is free – I am outside!
-Submitted by Michael E. Heller, Pinckneyville Correction Center, Illinois via Prison Book Program Blog