In March of 2015, the Washington D.C. Public Library in the USA opened its first Prison Library Program to introduce inmates to books and library programming available to them while they are incarcerated, as well as after their release. In its first year alone, 1,100 inmates checked out 4,600 books. The project’s inception began three years ago, in 2013, when many advocates began asking for such a library in the city’s jail, asserting how reading and library programming can rehabilitate and empower those serving time.
A unique feature of the Washington D.C. program is that when inmates are released, they leave with a library card that can be used in the neighborhood libraries within the city, encouraging them to continue to read and use library services that many first came into contact with while incarcerated. During their time in jail, they use the library as a place to check out books, increase their educational skills, and discuss the books they are reading with one another, thus increasing their communication skills.
The full-time librarian of the project, Danielle Zoller, provides titles and suggestions for books the inmates may find of interest. She says that many of the inmates tell her “that the first time they’ve read is when they get locked up”. One inmate, Larry Blair, said that initially inmates only had access to well-worn used books, donated occasionally. Now, through this program, the inmates have access to the same material available in any District library in the city. The library system plans to implement programs that teach the importance of reading as well as include story hours with inmates and their visiting children.
This is not the only Prison Library program offered – in Pensacola, Florida there is the Prison Book Project, which has been in operation since 2000. Annually, they send roughly 6,000 books to inmates in the Florida prison system and serve, on average, 1,800 inmates a year. Their goals, like the Washington D.C. program, is to “improve the lives of prisoners, provide educational resources” and reduce the likelihood of inmates being re-incarcerated as books provide convicts with opportunities to learn and grow as individuals.
There are numerous programs such as these in the United States, often relying on volunteers to make them successful. One is the Other Books to Prisoners Program that has been in existence since 1972 and whose sole purpose is to send free books to prisoners. Many prisoners have responded to the organization, writing to convey how important the books have been to them over the years.
As for the Washington D.C. program, the city resident who read the most books in the past year? It was an inmate, who read 101 books. It appears these programs are creating lifelong readers, which is an opportunity many never had before.
–Molly Brown, ILN Content Officer