By Joshua John
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.
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.
Image: Robert Couse-Baker, flickr.com