Books a Gateway to Greater Literacy for Prison Inmates

By Christopher Zoukis

How do you escape? Many people would say they’d mostly curl up with a good book, and so do we. Books are a way of getting away and seeing things from a new perspective no matter where you are, even more so if you don’t have the opportunity to do so otherwise.

prison literacy

This is the reality that faces over two million inmates in the U.S. penal system.

Six reasons why we should give books to prisoners:

1. About 70% of prisoners have a reading level below Grade 4:

Given the education and tools available it is a tragedy to know that 70% of inmates in US prisons are below the fourth grade reading level. This bears repeating - 70% of inmates cannot read above what is considered appropriate for a 10-year-old. Organizations delivering books to prisoners are extremely important in offering opportunities for growth and education by matching up reading level and interest.

2. Lowers chance of reoffending – higher chances of success:

Two out of three food stamp recipients are functionally illiterate and it’s estimated that 46-51% of Americans have incomes well below the poverty level because of their illiteracy. Not only does reading offer more opportunities when it comes to work, raising literacy levels also has been shown to reduce chances of reoffending, by 92% in some cases. In short, prisoners who have available opportunities for education and reading are more likely to succeed and less likely to reoffend.

3. Reading promotes empathy:

Author John Green once said: “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.”  Reading and writing work as an act of empathy. It creates situations to escape your everyday situation and step into someone else’s shoes. Reading a book requires a person to buy in, to live another life, to gain perspective.

4. Promoting community:

Have you ever bonded over a good book? Recommended a book to a friend? UC Books for Prisoners’ volunteers interact with inmates by reading their letters, recommending and selecting books, and working within prisons to staff libraries. UC Books for Prisoners has sent over 115,854 books in 33,945 packages to 17,389 inmates. That is 17,389 inmates that have reached out and have been responded to by the community. There is life outside of prison and this form of community outreach helps keep morale high.

5. Fostering learning:

Think about what you have learned from reading. Textbooks, newspapers, blogs, social media, and many other formats are all used as tools of learning. Oftentimes prisoners are portrayed working out in the yard or in their cells in popular media, but more of their time is being spend on self-improvement than ever before. It is a great advancement for inmates to have equal opportunity to work out their mind.

6. Accessible literacy should be a basic human right:

Books foster connections between people, whether it be a writer from a century ago or a friend who really enjoys a good read. Every American should have the right to access books at their reading level and to develop those skills, not excluding inmates. Incarceration should not mean that a person be excluded from intellectual growth. Reading means potential – potential drives opportunity – opportunity allow for success and a more empathetic and successful society for us all.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com