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William Watson, of New Orleans, is an inmate who works as a library clerk at the Jessup Correctional Institution.
William Watson, of New Orleans, is an inmate who works as a library clerk at the Jessup Correctional Institution. (Baltimore Sun)

William Henry Watson is serving a 36-year prison term for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and a life spent behind bars has its challenges. On days when he feels angry, despairing or sad, he turns for inspiration to people who have never let him down: Barack Obama, Harry S Truman, LeBron James, Harriet Tubman and Stephen King.

These are the authors of some of Watson’s favorite books, which he has read during his incarceration.

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“Reading changed me,” said Watson, who now works as a clerk in the prison library at Jessup Correctional Institution, “and when it did, it began to change other people’s perceptions of me.”

He hopes that a recent $100,000 grant from the Maryland State Library to purchase thousands of books for prison libraries will provide a similar morale boost for his fellow inmates.

Department of Correction officials celebrated the donation in December by leading visitors on a tour of Jessup’s library, an unimposing, carpeted room with shelves that hold roughly 6,000 books and with a circulation desk at the front. The only signs that this wasn’t a branch library were the barred windows and the customers’ gray prison garb.

An installment of the first batch of books purchased with the grant was on view for visitors. The titles were selected in response to inmate requests and included billionaire Warren Buffet’s “Seven Secrets to Investing,” former basketball star Lamar Odom’s “Darkness to Light” and “After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom" by paroled drug trafficker Alice Marie Johnson.

“A lot of the young guys are just lost,” said the 44-year-old Watson, who has been imprisoned since shortly after the September 2000 stick-up in Maryland’s Wicomico County. “I tell them, ‘You see me reading and writing every day. Trust me — it can work. But you have to get serious.’ ”

The grant is a gift from the Maryland State Library, the state department providing support for Maryland’s book lending institutions. If, as prison officials estimate, the average book costs about $20, the donation will fund the purchase of about 5,000 copies to be divided among the state’s 12 major prisons and four smaller satellite facilities. (There also are libraries in at least some of Maryland’s shorter-term correctional centers, according to a spokeswoman for Baltimore County, and in some cases, detainees can order books online. The $100,000 grant does not include book funds for these jails, most of which are locally operated and not part of the state prison system.)

The books the grant will pay for represent a huge increase in reading material, as Maryland’s dozen largest correctional institutions are allocated about $1,000 each every year for book purchases, according to June Brittingham, who supervises Maryland’s prison libraries.

“One thousand dollars for leisure reading is not a lot,” she said. "This grant is the equivalent of getting eight years of books all at once. It will make a huge difference for these guys. I was so excited when I heard about it that I was ready to jump up and down.”

The Jessup prison is located in a sprawling complex of detention centers and correctional institutes cordoned off with guard towers and swirls of barbed wire that are clustered together off of Route 175.

The grant represents a renewed commitment to inmate learning by the state’s libraries, which traditionally supported prison book collections until funds dwindled in recent years, according to Maryland State Librarian Irene Padilla. She’s been looking for an opportunity to restore book acquisition monies for inmates ever since.

“I’ve always had a fondness in my heart for those populations who don’t have ready access to library materials,” she said. “Prisoners need books, and they deserve to have them.”

Inmates already had restrictions on their ability to obtain books; they are limited to hard-cover and paperback copies they can borrow from their institution’s library. Unlike most other Maryland residents, prisoners lack internet access and can’t read books online. They can buy hard-cover books through the mail, but the screening process is rigorous; in the past, books have been used as hiding places for contraband.

“It gets so cumbersome,” Brittingham said, “that no one wants to do it.”

Despite these limitations, Padilla said, the prison has transformed a surprising number of inmates into avid readers.

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Maryland has about 19,000 people behind bars, according to state officials. Prison libraries were visited by inmates 159,452 times last year, Brittingham said, and those men and women checked out 141,837 books. That’s an average of almost eight books a year per prisoner. Circulation this year might have been even higher if staffing shortages hadn’t closed some prison libraries for all but two or three days each week.

Nonetheless, prisoners’ library use is just slightly lower than that of the general population; Maryland’s 6 million residents checked out about 57 million books last year, Padilla said, or about 9.5 per person.

Brittingham said the prison system provides incentives to encourage incarcerated men and women to participate in book discussion groups and other literacy-enhancing activities.

“A lot of our inmates weren’t readers before they came to prison," she said. "Maybe they originally join a discussion group for some reason other than reading a book. But then they get hooked.”

Watson said it was Obama’s 2006 essay “The Audacity of Hope" that “started to shift my ideology” and transformed him into a serious reader. He quoted the 44th U.S. president from memory:

“Obama said, ‘This is not red America or white America or blue America. This is the United States of America.’ "

Those words made him curious about the challenges facing other American leaders. Watson began checking out biographies of previous U.S. presidents from Lincoln to Truman.

Brittingham said that titles purchased with the grant will be divided equally between fiction and nonfiction, adding that biographies feature heavily on inmate wish lists.

Another category in high demand: legal case studies and court decisions. Librarians fielded 52,452 legal reference questions last year, she said, an average of about three per inmate.

But another much-requested genre is less predictable.

“Urban novels are big,” she said. “Fantasy is big.”

For instance, one of the first titles delivered to Jessup was “The Fiery Cross” the fifth installment in Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series. (These time-traveling romances set in the Scottish Highlands serve as the basis for a hit television series on the STARZ network.)

Watson said inmates often gravitate to escapist fiction early in their incarcerations.

“Some people use drugs to take them away from wherever they’re trying to get out of,” he said. “But then they find that you can get just as lost in a book.”

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Veterans of prison life, he said, are often attracted to inspirational and self-improvement titles that provide reason for hope. These can include biographies of sports stars such as Odom, who writes about defeating internal demons. And they include a slew of business books aimed at developing budding entrepreneurs, such as industrialist Charlie Gilkey’s “Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done.”

“Some inmates will finish serving their sentence, get out of prison, commit another crime and come back,” Brittingham said. "But some will transition permanently to the outside. It’s our job to get them ready for employment once they leave here.

“I run into some of our former inmates from time to time when I’m out in public. I see them doing well in their communities and being successful on the outside. They’re always the same inmates who got involved with the library when they were institutionalized.”

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