Books Behind Bars Mean Better Outcomes

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. 
Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. 

By Christopher Zoukis

Evidence is overwhelming prisoners benefit in myriad ways when they have access to books and education. An increase in education of any kind is connected to reducing recidivism, as reported by the 2013 Rand Corporation Study, and as demonstrated by the outcomes of numerous programs that have been implemented across institutions.

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. The odds of obtaining employment upon release are also greatly increased for inmates that have availed themselves of books and programs. This is extremely important because 95 percent of the 2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. will eventually be released. There should be more focus on ensuring these people can successfully reintegrate into society.

Changing Lives Through Literature is one program that successfully demonstrates this. Started in 1991 in Massachusetts, the first program participants had a recidivism rate of 19 percent, compared to the control group, which had a 45 percent rate of recidivism. The program connects works of literature with offenders with the driving idea that reading can transform lives. Through reading groups, participants learn to connect with characters and ideas, explore their imaginations, and go deeper in thinking about what has driven their own actions in life.

Besides reducing reincarceration rates, reading and other educational programs benefit prisoners by providing means of entertainment and escape, offering constructive ways to pass the time. On a deeper level, books help improve literacy rates — something that certainly needs to be worked on, as 68 percent of inmates in state prisons lack high school diplomas. Reading opens up avenues to learning vocational and professional development skills. Some of the most requested books behind bars cover topic including legal information, career development, and dictionaries and GED prep materials.

Beyond basic literacy skills, reading also builds vocabulary. It can also enrich people’s emotional and social lives, boosting empathy, social perception and context, learning about choices and consequences, allowing for self-reflection and insight, and connection to society though an understanding of what is happening in the outside world. In some institutions where book clubs are run, these skills can go even further, as prisoners learn respect, discussion, listening and community building, while discussing important themes.

Prison education programs also save money. A $1 investment in education means a savings of $4-5 in further incarceration costs post-release.

Benefits of education programs, and in particular reading, are also recognized around the world. From book clubs at Warkworth Institution in Canada, to reading programs in Italy and Brazil, many institutions are turning to books and libraries to help with rehabilitation. The benefits are so recognized that in both Italy and Brazil, sentences can be reduced for reading books and writing short reflective essays — up to a reduction of 48 days per year.

The New York Public Library Correctional Services Program highlights the importance of its work of providing services to inmates, fulfilling the democratic mission of the library because it gives access to information many take for granted to a “wholly segregated group of people.”

Books and libraries are especially important in prisons where other educational resources, such as formal education classes, may be very limited or not available at all.

There are a variety of book programs to donate to or volunteer with that can ensure books meet the requirements of the institution they are being sent to, including content and genre. In many cases, books must be shipped new from a bookstore, to prevent contraband entering the institution. However access is gained to books, it is important to ensure this access is not limited, and that adequate and diverse collections are provided. Additionally, books and libraries should not be regarded as an earned privilege, but as a vital and powerful tool of rehabilitation. 

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