June 10, 2014

It’s extremely difficult for prisoners to get books. These nonprofits are here to help.


Prison Writing

Many states make it incredibly difficult for prisoners to have access to books.

Though it seems like it’s pretty easy to go to jail—there are more than two million incarcerated persons in the United States alone—one thing that has had a tough time making its way behind bars is literature. Those books, the goody-two-shoes that they are, have been put in a tough position by criminal justice systems internationally.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Ministry of Justice passed a rule stating that, among other things, prisoners would no longer be allowed to receive books in the mail. The change made a lot of people mad, and with good reason. Access to literature is a fundamental way to expand one’s mind and change one’s perspective, something that would be theoretically valuable to a system set on rehabilitating prisoners.

But, in a way that I’m sure would have made King George proud, the problems in Britain are problems in the United States, too. Many states have laws that impart a similar type of ban on the prisons in their systems, making books tough to come across. This is only made worse by other laws, such as one in Washington state that prohibits the use of public money to fund any education for prisoners.

But, in a way that I’m sure would have made the founding fathers proud, there are some organizations that are fighting the power. In an article last week in the Capitol Hill Times, programs at the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCC)W were highlighted for the good they are doing.

“50 women prisoners began reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen this week in their summer literature program. The women chose the book to further explore the universal themes that Austen’s works are known for: love, money, power, and status. An apt book selection for women who know a thing or two about what it means to be undone by these forces.”

This particular course and many others like it at the WCCW are part of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, an organization that works with the WCCW to offer classes that help prisoners towards an Associate’s Degree of Arts and Science.

Outside of organized classes, there are other ways that books are working to do a reverse-prison-break. Non-Profit organizations like Books to Prisoners (BTP), based in Seattle, or Books Through Bars (BTB), based in New York have been working for years to get the written word in the hands of prisoners directly. According to the BTP website, they get anywhere between 1,000 and 1,300 written requests for books a month, and with the help of volunteers and donations, they send them what they can. Both organizations run almost exclusively on the help of volunteers, donated books, and donated funds for postage.

The use of books in a rehabilitative manner is not without its international supporters. Earlier this year, it was announced that Italian prisoners could reduce their sentence by three days for every book they read, with a maximum of 48 reduced days per year. This exists in stark contrast to the current situations in the UK, and many places in America.

While the United States will probably always be a little bit more like Britain than we will Italy, it;s not to have something to dream about.