“Even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free.”
– Oscar Wilde
Many inmates in New York and New Jersey will be losing their rights to literacy.
Inmates in a number of New York and New Jersey prisons no longer can receive donated books in the mail from family members and community groups. Instead, they now have to pay for a narrowed down selection of books provided by six state-approved vendors. Additionally, this narrowed down selection hardly includes educational materials that previously helped inmates further themselves academically, socially, and psychologically.
In New York, this policy arrived under the moniker “Directive 4911A” and is expected to soon be implemented throughout the state’s correctional system. “The intent is to enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program,” reads the description of the directive, which was approved Dec. 4, 2017.
Inmates who are educated are nearly 50 percent less likely to return to prison after their release. If such a large quantity of inmates can retain a positive wellbeing and stay out of prison with the aid of simple education, then why is that being taken away?
Limiting Literacy and Growth
Not only does the directive limit an inmate’s selection in quantity and ability to pay more than $11 for a novel, but it restricts their growth as human beings who someday wish to live crime-free and fulfilling lives.
With the directive in place, inmates will only be able to purchase books and potentially other publications from just six approved vendors. The range of literary offerings is very minimal. Books Through Bars, a national prison literacy project that provides free reading materials to inmates in 40 states, said in total the vendors provide:
- 5 romance titles
- 14 bibles or religious texts
- 24 illustration or coloring books
- 21 puzzle books
- 11 how-to books
- 1 dictionary and thesaurus
Prior to this directive, inmates had access to books that would spark imagination, learning, self-assessment, career pathways, and personal development. These books helped inmates overcome obstacles such as addiction, parenting, and psychological issues. Many of the books would help inmates simply learn to read and write, develop an understanding of future work goals, or become productive members of the community, outside of the prison walls.
A representative of Books Through Bars said it best in writing to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo:
“No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls. This draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people.”
Why Literacy in Prison Matters
Education and literacy—along with poverty, race, and gender—have a big impact on the likelihood that a person will spend time in prison.
The United States is home to 5 percent of the global population. Yet it has a quarter of the world’s imprisoned population—or 2.2 million people—living behind bars. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 75 percent of state prison inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low- literate.
Furthermore, 95 percent of individuals who are incarcerated in the U.S., are reintegrated into our communities. Research shows that inmates who are educated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison. This says a lot for why it is important to educate inmates and prepare them for life outside of prison.
The cost to incarcerate an adult is approximately $35,000 per year. The cost to educate a prisoner is approximately $2,500 per year. According to a national study, the RAND Corporation found that for every $1 spent on education, $5 is saved in reduced re-incarceration costs.
Literacy in Prisons
To help break the cycle of re-incarceration, nonprofit groups across the country provide literacy programs for inmates. These programs encourage various behavioral and social progressions such as encouraging bonds between incarcerated parents and children through reading, building employability of inmates, and developing their basic literacy skills.
The Petey Greene Program is a nonprofit organization that trains college students to tutor prisoners in five states and Washington, D.C. Shaina Watrous, the D.C. field manager for the program, shared in a Project Literacy interview why these programs need to continue to exist.
“The first time I went to a prison to tutor, I was working with someone who was 35 years old, and English was his first language,” Watrous said. “I was working with him on flashcards with four- or five-letter words, where he was struggling to read everything. I just remember thinking about all the systems that had to have failed this man for him to get to that point. We talk about giving prisoners a second chance—but so many people in prison have never had a first chance.”
Since the 2008 recession, there have been numerous cutbacks in funding for prison education programs which has led to fewer classes, fewer inmates enrolled, and less staff support. Education is a cost-effective method to reduce crime and create opportunities for success and employability. However, if the cutbacks continue, having access to books and publications to fill some of the voids and drive real change and empower real development is crucial for these inmates.
The Final Straw
Although New York and New Jersey are a small fraction of the big picture, who’s to say that this new policy won’t create a domino effect nationwide the way similar policies have in the past? The significance of education in prisons will slide and take a back seat compared to other priorities, and the percentage of incarcerated individuals, those living in poverty, and thriving on crime, will only increase.