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Reading and prison libraries
By Judith Jordet, MLS
Published: 09/29/2008

0925book_and_key Reading is a powerful tool for people in every walk of life, but it takes on special significance for inmates. Reading books not only builds their knowledge and vocabulary, but it also develops their capacity for internal reflection -- a crucial skill often lacking among criminals.

Managing general reading books in prison are important, regardless if it is one library room or several units each having "pod libraries." A managed book collection provides a pro-social example of social support within the prison setting. All these benefits make it important for general reading books in prison libraries to flourish.

Just what is the importance of reading in our society? The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) calls reading books for pleasure "a behavior to be cultivated with the same zeal as academic achievement, financial or job performance, and global competitiveness."

The NEA reports, "reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities. Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading."

Vocabulary, Reflection and Social Awareness

Reading is a proven exercise in vocabulary building, a skill that would benefit many inmates. In the article, "Reading Can Make You Smarter" from the Nov/Dec 2003, journal Principal, Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich discuss a graph that ranks rare words per 1,000. It shows adult books have 52.7 rare words per 1,000, whereas prime-time adult TV shows only had 22.7 rare words per 1,000.

Reading books also requires internal reflection, no matter what the book is about. Criminal thinking often does not allow for much internal reflection about consequences or responsibilities for actions.

A reader has a choice to identify with the character or else respond with internal relief, "I'm so glad I am not that person!"

If a reader identifies with a character in a story it can affect self-concept. If an inmate reads a story that engages him in role-playing in his mind, he is invited to reflect upon who he once was, who he thinks he is, or who he might become. This is much more powerful than making rational judgments about a character's choices outside the pages of a book.

Reading seldom places the reader in the center of the universe but always in a social context. When inmates are engrossed in a book, they are reading about characters living a life in a social setting.

Therefore, reading introduces a social perception created by the author. Social perception is often lacking in the thinking of the criminal mind.

"Reading changes the reader from the inside out," says Dr. F. J. Hakemulder from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who obtained his PhD in the psychology of literature.

Thus, reading is beneficial to the prison population in many ways – and, contrary to popular belief, inmates enjoy reading books. Even though their reading skills measure lower than those of the general public, 50 percent of inmates read books daily, much more often than people in a similar age group outside of prison.

Benefits for All

Because of the pro-social advantages of reading, it behooves society to ensure prison libraries are well stocked. For the past 150 years the American public has supported prison libraries by generously donating books.

However, the quality of a prison library collection is too important to be determined by a generous public donating their old reads and used reference books.

In spite of public support, across the country general reading libraries for the prison population sometimes get caught in the cross hairs of budget cuts. In the past decade, libraries have lost paid staff in states such as Arizona and Florida.

The prisons still have books on the shelves, but no staff to manage or develop the collection. Examples of actively managed prison library collections still occurs in states such as Maryland, Colorado and Washington, but because it is difficult to measure the positive input that reading books have on inmates it is often difficult to prove to budget committees why books are important.

Inmates are willing to read. Reading books increases vocabulary, challenges self concept, encourages reflection, engages the inmate for several days in a social world created by an author and thereby introduces him to consider the social context of choices and reactions.

Managing a collection is more than just placing books on shelves; it means tracking and insuring there is an adequate and diverse reading collection. When a general reading collection is nurtured, it is one way to provide social support within the prison. Reading books not only benefits inmates now, it has the power to benefit society in the long run.

For a guideline about standards for prison libraries see the web site by the American Library Association

Other articles by Jordet:



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