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William Watson, of New Orleans, an inmate who works as a library clerk at the Jessup Correctional Institution, reads the back cover of a book before placing it on a shelf. Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a $100,000 grant to buy hundreds of books for DPSCS's 16 prison libraries.
William Watson, of New Orleans, an inmate who works as a library clerk at the Jessup Correctional Institution, reads the back cover of a book before placing it on a shelf. Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a $100,000 grant to buy hundreds of books for DPSCS's 16 prison libraries. (Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s prison libraries are getting thousands of new books with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Maryland State Library. The gift will fund a windfall of at least 5,000 books if you consider the average tome costs about $20. That’s a far cry from the $1,000 a year the state’s largest prisons typically devote to reading materials: about 50 new books a year.

Prisons should be places not only where people are punished for their crimes, but where they can improve their lives to become better members of society upon their release. Books can play a vital role in a prisoner’s rehabilitation. Knowledge is power, the saying goes. Not to mention, reading is enjoyable and relaxing too.

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We should be filling prison libraries with the latest reads, as well historic books and classics. Many of us can remember getting absorbed in books as children and having our minds opened up to new worlds and ideas we had never been exposed to before. The same can happen to people in the prison system. To quote Dr. Suess: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go."

Many of our state’s prisoners grew up in insular worlds amid crime and poverty. They didn’t see many examples of people who have made it out of similar circumstances. Success stories were not all that abundant.

In autobiographies they can find these role models — and perhaps hope and inspiration as well. By reading about the lives of people like Barack Obama and Bryan Stevenson, the death row attorney whose life was made into a movie in theaters now, maybe they can map out their own blueprint for success. The late civil rights leader Malcolm X became a voracious reader in prison and credits books with changing his life and opening his mind to new ideas.

There are other life lessons that can be taken from books as well. Self-health reads can teach incarcerated people ways to improve themselves and deal with life’s obstacles. An inspirational first account of someone formerly incarcerated could show them the path to leave the revolving door of prison for good. A book on investing might teach the financial literacy skills they need to succeed.

Which takes us to another reason why books are needed in prisons — literacy. Nearly 85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading ,and 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read, according to The Literacy Project Foundation. While it is not the only factor, there is no question that reading improves literacy. Let’s put more books in libraries and have the incarcerated come out more proficient readers when their terms are completed. This will make them more employable and give a boost to their self-esteem.

Unfortunately, many prisons are restricting books that are offered to people who are sentenced to their facilities. Restriction was previously attempted in Maryland but thwarted by First Amendment advocates. In 2018, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services announced a new rule that inmates would only be allowed to receive books from two vendors, Edward Hamilton Books and Books N Things. The hope was that the limitation would reduce the smuggling of Suboxone film into the prisons. The drug used to treat opioid addiction is sold in thin strips that could easily be hidden between the pages of a book. The department rescinded the policy after complaints from the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter. Books from family members and other places are now more thoroughly checked for drugs.

Instead of limiting books, prisons should be encouraging reading. In addition to expanding their book collections, they can organize book clubs, where inmates can participate in discussions, or suggest that inmates write in journals about what they read.

Of course, reading isn’t the panacea for completely transforming the incarcerated. To what degree they can, we also encourage inmates to take advantage of programs where they can earn a GED or even a college degree, get treatment for addiction to alcohol or drug,s and take advantage of any mental health services that can help deal with untreated trauma.

Some people see books as a privilege and extracurricular activity that prisoners should be guaranteed — and that prison should be punitive and not restorative. In reality, the opposite is true. Leaving people to languish in prison with no chance for self-improvement means they will go back to society no better than when they came in. We must invest in people who are incarcerated. Books are one cost-effective and easy way to do it.

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