Opening up a world of reading opportunities for youth offenders

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently librarian and literacy advocate Amy Cheney recounted an experience of teaching young offenders in a max unit how they could read to their children and/or younger siblings. One of the most poignant moments in her account, is her recollection that of the six girls in her group, just one of them had been read to as a child. She posited further that the lack of reflective characters in books generally must have had a significant impact on their young minds. The piece goes on to list several titles—both chidren’s and YA—that embrace the type of diversity Cheney sees as being critical to young minds from marginalized backgrounds. 

It’s an important piece we want to share, one that highlights how critical reading is to breaking the cycles of poverty and crime. It is not simply a question of literacy—although literacy skills are clearly imperative when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners—but also one of broadening a young mind’s understanding of the world at large, allowing them to see themselves as part of that greater whole, reflecting the realities of their environments and situations, and affirming their value as human beings.

When Britain’s ban on sending books to prison (which was ultimately overturned) passed last year, a former youth offender had this to say when speaking of the impact of reading on turning his own life around:

“We should know from history…that we become a little less human when books are attacked. We should support any creative alternative to the dominant prison culture: boredom, hopelessness, violence, self-centred pettiness. Books cannot take the blame for the prevalence of drugs or religious extremism in our prisons; they can help create empathy, encourage thoughtfulness and reflection and represent the possibility of change.”

And this is what having books in prison fundamentally boils down to: it opens a prisoner’s eyes to the possibility of another future.

I urge anyone who a loved one in juvenile detention to head to Cheney’s site for a list of titles chosen specifically for their relevance to marginalized and imprisoned readers. 

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