Last summer, I indexed a great book for convicts. It is titled Failed Evidence and it is about the lack of scientific proof and the prevalence of innuendo in criminal prosecutions. Having read and selected from every single word on every page of this book as I made the index, I know that unjustly imprisoned readers can find in it explanations of how convictions go wrong and examples of how to prove flaws in crime investigation and prosecution.
With the power to decide whether “blood stains” and “blood splatter” should appear together under “blood” or separately as individual terms or not at all as long as “blood” alone is somewhere in the list, the indexer has a lot to do with whether readers find what they need in a book. Certainly convicted felons with limited library time, only one shared copy of the book, and a potential intolerance for details that don’t apply to their case are likely to flip to the index looking for terms and for hope. Maybe I just like the idea that people who were lead out through the back door of the courtroom will find their way back into the halls of justice through the back door of the book.
The author of Failed Evidence sets forth a set of strategies for improving criminal investigations and prosecutions; this is his unique contribution to the field of “innocence” literature. And because that concrete guidance is encased between page-turning horror stories, this particular book is a stirring call to action. Policy-makers and social activists will see it as guidance for the future. Inmates should see it as what went wrong in their past: where the authorities were negligent, how the controlling powers ignored civil rights, and why they, the incarcerated readers, have habeas corpus claims.
Undoubtedly, some prisoners won’t start with the index; they will begin at the Table of Contents and read straight through the text. They might even take notes on that first read-through. And then, late at night, memories from the book will mingle with visions of the governor’s handshake, images of freedom, and maybe even thoughts of restitution money… It will be big mingling– like a loud party that crowds out the usual ugly cell block nightmares.
These inmates will awake refreshed and ready to brief their cases. They’ll return to the library eager to check once more the good lines that inspired them. And how will they find exactly those parts of the book again? They will look in the index and this index will serve them justly. Oh, I hope the prison libraries buy Failed Evidence and I hope the inmates use the index.
Brazil’s prison system has come up with an innovative program to shorten the sentences of selected prisoners: Redemption Through Reading. The basic premise is that prisoners can take four days off their sentences for every book that they read, at a maximum of 12 books a year. They can choose from classic works of literature, philosophy and science, and must write a grammatically correct essay on each book. Lawyer Andre Kehdi praises the benefits of the program, as prisoners leave “more enlightened” and with an “enlarged vision of the world.” While prisons have long had libraries and educational programs, more prisons are recognizing the specific positive social effects that reading can have on inmates.
Breaking the Cycle A major dilemma with prisons is recidivism. Once acclimated to a life of crime, many prisoners become repeat offenders. For example: Over 50 percent of Colorado inmates return to prison within only five years, according to the Colorado Department of Education. One way to break this cycle is to reduce the levels of low literacy among prisoners, giving them access to educational materials, current news, topics of interest and a more constructive way to “manage their leisure time.” Fast Facts – Recent Statistics from the Library Research Service indicates that 83 percent of released prisoners claim that the prison library helped them to acquire life skills needed in order to be successful in their communities.
The Need to Fund Literacy Programs ProLiteracy America offers some sad statistics: Almost half of prisoners enter prison without a high school diploma, and the average reading level of prisoners is below the fifth grade level. Prisoners lack the reading skills needed to be successful members of society prior to entering the system. Quality literacy programs in prisons may be their last opportunities at leading normal lives upon their release.
Program Suggestions ERIC Digests offers several suggestions for reading programs that will help prisoners build their literacy skills and, in turn, their ability to be successful in the community. As with all students, prisoners have different strengths and learning styles, so meaningful materials should be selected. Materials written by former prisoners can be very powerful. Special incentives and awards can also be motivating, and the low funding can sometimes be overcome with local volunteer tutors, who additionally provide inmates with connections to the outside world. Literacy building should not be dropped after a prisoner is released. Prisoners need transition plans, with skill-building programs that continue to follow and support them.
Some Final Thoughts Stanford University conducted studies that show a strong connection between reading and social skills in children. Poor readers tend to show increased aggression that they carry with them through the end of their formal schooling, necessitating interventions that focus on closing the gaps early on. The good news is that it is never too late to gain literacy skills and develop a love for reading. An example of this is Jim Henry, a fisherman who learned to read at 92 and went on to become an author at 98. People can turn their lives around with enough will power; books may just unlock that hidden potential.
Joshua John works in community relations for the University of Southern California’s Virtual Master of Social Work program, which provides social workers the opportunity to earn online social work degrees and apply for social work licenses.