Books Behind Bars
Volume 21 Issue 18 2013-05-17
“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” Those words come from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who retired from the Supreme Court of the United States at the age of 90. Not surprisingly, the inmates who form such a large part of that court system are often those who could most benefit from new ideas, ideas that can change lives for the better. So why is it still so difficult to supply them with the books that can offer them those ideas?
It’s not a huge leap to see the connection between education and crime. In a 2003 study, researchers from the University of Western Ontario and UCLA reported that “schooling significantly reduces the probability of incarceration.” They also found that differences “in educational attainment between black and white men” could explain a full 23 per cent of the gap in black/white male incarceration rates.
Not only is education a benefit to those who avoid jail and their victims, it holds financial benefits for society at large. Another study, reported in The Vancouver Sun, notes the impact that education has on property crimes in Canada, such as robbery, burglary, and fraud.
When prison sentences were increased by ten per cent, the property-crime rate dropped by five per cent. But those longer sentences cost taxpayers an extra $20,000 to $30,000 each year per inmate. If “comparable tax revenues” were instead used in programs that increase high school graduation rates, crime rates would drop by about nine per cent—nearly double the improvement.
So what, exactly, is the state of prison libraries today? Well, they’re hardly the stuff of a Dickensian debtors’ prison, yet there’s clearly a need for more of those life-changing books and their ideas.
In 2003, researchers conducted a thorough nationwide survey of Canadian prison libraries. The survey went out to prisons at all levels, from minimum to maximum security, and had a response rate of 73 per cent. The report makes interesting reading, and there are both positive and negative findings. However, as the authors write in their conclusion, this comment from one prison staff member sums up the feelings of many others: “There is no other environment where the need is greater and the commitment less.”
And that need is tied firmly to those numbers on crime and education. As the survey notes, “approximately 65 per cent of ‘new’ offenders test at a completion level lower than Grade 8 in mathematics and language skills and 82 per cent test lower than Grade 10.”
It might seem like a situation that’s doomed to get worse, especially in the face of closures and cutbacks in many public library systems. But that’s where Books to Prisoners comes in.
Books to Prisoners is actually an umbrella term for several programs that get reading material into inmates’ hands. Wikipedia has a list of those programs across both Canada and the US, and the oldest of them is the Prison Book Program, started in Massachusetts in 1972.
Pam Boiros, a long-time volunteer with the program, recently told the Boston Globe that the books most requested by prisoners were a surprisingly basic item: dictionaries. She also shared a thank-you letter from an inmate whose cycle of depression, drugs, and prison had left him desperate enough to consider suicide—until he received a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank.
So the next time you’re thinking about pruning those bookshelves, remember that list of book programs—and the minds that could be stretched by the ideas in the pages you may no longer need.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).
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