The United States incarcerates more people than any other developed nation; unfortunately, these imprisoned citizens are not receiving access to the educational tools they need to reform their lives.
Recent Deseret News reporting documented the high recidivism rates for inmates who do not have access to library books; one prison employee interviewed estimated the figure was 60 percent. While admirable private solutions have emerged to address the need and demand for books in prison, the U.S. government should act on the moral and political imperative to empower and ennoble all citizens — even the most disenfranchised — to achieve their full potential.
First established in 1790, American prison libraries were instituted as a method for reforming behavior, usually through religious means. Clergy often ran the prisons, and early libraries usually contained only scriptural texts. While libraries grew to include secular materials, it wasn’t until 1977 that the U.S. government acknowledged a constitutional responsibility to provide inmates access to a law library to ensure access to information that would help them litigate their own appeals and empower themselves. However, a subsequent ruling complicated the mandate for law libraries in all prisons. Now, inmates are required to prove their rights are impinged by inadequate access to legal materials for a full library to be provided, in some cases.
What is missing from these legal battles is the charitable and moral sentiment evidenced by the diligent work of nonprofits stocking prison libraries. These volunteers are motivated by a belief that all people deserve a meaningful opportunity to reform their lives and empower themselves. Volunteers such as Toby Lafferty collect and distribute books to prisons around the country. For Lafferty’s Millcreek-based nonprofit organization, Books Inside, that means providing 23,000 books to 35 prisons and jails in 13 states nationwide last year alone.
However, the requests Lafferty receives annually from more than 28 states and 150 facilities reveal the depth of the need for books to offer career skills, increased literacy and a mental and emotional escape from a dismal reality.
While a moral imperative exists to offer prisoners a minimum living standard, the education and escape that books offer inmates is not important for self-actualization alone. The government also has political and fiscal incentive to invest in books as a way to decrease recidivism. In one study, researchers found that “prisoners sentenced to a literature discussion group” in lieu of additional jail time experienced a “19 percent recidivism rate as compared to 42 percent in a control group.”4 comments on this story
In 2012, independent research found that U.S. prisons collectively cost the U.S. government $39 billion annually. Broken down, it costs taxpayers and the federal government $168,000 to incarcerate one inmate in New York City for a year. In total, the U.S. prison budget is roughly two-thirds of the federal education budget. With costs this high, the U.S. should seek every policy opportunity available to rehabilitate criminal behavior, reduce prison costs and protect the public by decreasing recidivism.
Doing so requires increasing the quality and quantity of libraries in facilities nationwide.