December 5, 2019
Prison book club offers new opportunities for high-security prisoners
by Andréa Córdova
It was 2018 when public defender and essayist Amalia Beckner first entered Harris County Jail in Houston. Beckner writes for the Houston Chronicle that despite jitters upon seeing high security measures and plexiglass, she had an idea in mind for 4J2, a maximum-security women’s pod. She was at the jail to gauge the interest of the women in 4J2 to form a book club that would meet twice a month. Initially the idea of it was met with some apprehension from case workers. Despite the trepidation from them, Beckner’s crowdfunding campaign a month prior to the visit went above and beyond what she had hoped for. The campaign also drew press from the Houston Chronicle, praising her for her efforts and bringing more awareness to the program.
Beckner writes that the idea formed when saw how giving books to her clients made them feel better and more content. The program proposed would focus on women with the most serious charges and highest security classifications that forbid them from seeking a GED or participating in other educational programs. It wasn’t until the second visit that Beckner would meet her first inmate and explain the book club. When surveying the group, all of them agreed that they wanted to do something productive with their time to learn something. It was then that Beckner learned that only half the group had a high-school diploma or a GED.
The book club was an enormous success—some favorites included Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and classics like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Strangers from all kinds of backgrounds who had followed the growing awareness of the project had donated a variety of books for the club.
Sadly, 4J2 was closed down this year for cleaning. However, thanks to the success of the program, Beckner has started book clubs in other pods of Harris County Jail. Of course education and enrichment is beneficial for all, but a 2018 RAND analysis found that prisoners partaking in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to reoffend. By making sure inmates are reading not just for recreation but also for education, they will integrate back into society smoothly.
Andréa Córdova is a publicist at Melville House.