Believe it or not, one of the places is Virginia, which recently instituted a ban the books campaign in all state correctional facilities.
Yes, it sounded a little crazy to me too. But apparently a free program that’s been providing prisoners with something to read for the past two decades has become too dangerous for VA authorities. And too much work. Or so the Quest Institute, a non-profit that runs “Books Behind Bars,” was told last month by prison officials. While declining to provide details, VA DOC spokesman Larry Traylor told the Washington Post, there were growing concerns that someone could smuggle “contraband to a prisoner by secreting it in a book.” Think Andy Dufresne’s rock hammer (above) in the Shawshank Redemption. Except, oops – that was actually brought in with the laundry by another inmate. Dufresne only hid his escape tool in the Bible after he was back in his cell.
In the case of the prison book program, the folks at Quest think it was a stray paper clip and CD that accidentally made it into a Virginia shipment. Not a good thing, certainly, but not a rock hammer, either. I’m all for security concerns and safety – but inmates quietly reading vs. bored felons gossiping, gangbanging or worse? Who would you rather supervise? Or see released in the near future? Even in Virginia — a state known for making prisoners as uncomfortable as possible — passing out books seems less pampering than common sense, particularly when the most frequently requested volumes are the dictionary, the Bible and the Koran. Coming on top of last year’s discontinuation of college courses in some facilities, this new ban is just silly, not to mention counter-productive.
Now I know many correctional facilities still have their own small libraries. I also know the pickings can be slim. One of my students recently requested a thesaurus because she wanted to build up her vocabulary for job interviews. There wasn’t one in the library so the librarian shared her own, which unfortunately dated back to WW II. A sympathetic guard ultimately printed out a Word-of-the-Day from her computer and gave it to the inmate. Don’t we want to encourage offenders like her who want to educate themselves and hopefully finish their terms more focused and able to get a job? Particularly when it costs us nothing?
What’s been your experience? Anyone benefit from reading while incarcerated? What books meant a lot to you?