For me, as a representative of Gen Z and a minority group, reading books is another way for me to leave harsh realities behind (COVID, political stress, climate change, racial turmoil.) Reading the likes of James Baldwin offers me a priceless perspective in this moment of deep challenge, and books by other writers have become a safety net and an escape. In short, I have found reading to become a therapeutic way to deal with all that overwhelms me. There’s something about lighting a candle, sipping on some mint tea, all while reading a book...so comforting.
So why is access to literature so commonly denied to those who are incarcerated? Why then, are prison libraries not being funded? I don’t think people realize just how isolated prisoners are from this world, from their families and their communities. For inmates, books aren’t just an escape from reality. Some use books as a safety net, to shield them from their reality. They can be used to prop up the pillow end of a mattress while they read or shape Harlequin romances into pillows. All the while, 65% of inmates are dealing with substance abuse or addictions. Roughly half deal with serious mental health issues (“Books Through Bars”). Those with idle minds can absolutely be both stimulated and comforted with reading, and as humans should enjoy books as a protected right. To deny full access to literature is an ironic crime in itself, and the nation is guilty.
Not only are prison libraries underfunded, but they are also perpetually understaffed. Usually, the libraries are only staffed with one person to overlook and manage the books and visitors. This not only puts the librarian in a hostile position with inmates, but can also be an overwhelming responsibility for the librarian. “Approximately 75% of state prison inmates do not complete high school. Years spent behind bars deprives people of formal education and job experience. Each year hundreds of thousands of individuals return to the streets with the same problems that landed them there in the first place, still unaddressed and often worsened” (“Books Through Bars”).
As we consider how to better advocate for those currently incarcerated, may we be ever more mindful of the pressing need for fairer funding of prison libraries. And for those of us on the outside, may we never forget that while books are something we all-too-often take for granted, for those stripped of freedom, access to literature means so much more.
Written by Guest Blogger:
Cheltenham High School - Project Based Learning Intern