Such hope is in short supply at Georgia prisons.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of electronic book catalogues in 12 state prisons found wide disparities in the number and availability of reading material.
Baldwin State Prison Library, for example, offers fewer than 2,000 books for about 1,000 prisoners, about one tenth the offering of comparably sized Central State Prison in Macon.
Four prisons have libraries with at least 10 books per inmate. Another four have less than four per person.
Those meager offerings aren’t for lack of demand. Every book at Phillips State Prison is lent out about twice a year, on average. Their condition reflects their constant handling. A note in the March 2019 monthly summary at Phillips State Prison reported: “If (inmates) do find a book or periodical they want, it is unbelievably worn and tattered.” Phillips’ library had the fewest books checked out per inmate that month.
The AJC's findings come as policy makers around the country and in Washington have been reducing sentences for non-violent offenders, and searching for alternative forms of rehabilitation.
Several studies have shown that books, often overlooked in that debate, have contributed to lower recidivism rates. A book-based alternative sentencing program in Massachusetts showed how books reduce recidivism. Only 19% of inmates enrolled in that program reoffended, compared with 45% of a control group. The RAND Corporation has also published similar studies showing that education programs lead to huge decreases in the risk of reoffending.
Years of zero funding for prison libraries in Georgia and a reliance on donations to stock the shelves contributed to the poor state of book availability in the state, the AJC found.
Mike Wood, a core member of the Prison Books Program, the oldest prison book donation program in the country, said states such Georgia should see investments in the literacy of inmates as investments in the community.
“Think about it this way, prisoners are going to hopefully one day get out,” said Wood. “They’re going to be living in the same town as you and me.” He said he’d rather live next to someone who’s had the opportunity to read and to learn.
Andrea Shelton, Department of Corrections (GDC) Board Member for the Fifth District, said books in Georgia prisons were often viewed as a luxury, and limiting access to books was a common tactic among “unenlightened correctional officials who’re there to ‘show up and bow up.’”
Two who made a difference, Shelton said, were former Commissioner Homer Bryson and and Assistant Commissioner for Education Buster Evans, who have both since left the corrections department. They added 100,000 books to the system’s libraries, she said.
Until 2017, prison libraries were under the jurisdiction of the facilities department, separate from education. The department relied on donated books and there was no system to distribute them where need was greatest, in part because many prison catalogues were not computerized.
Corrections officials moved libraries to the system’s education department two years ago. For the first time, the library division began receiving a dedicated budget of about $359,000 to replace lost and deteriorated books. The funding works out to about $3,200 per prison per year.
Prisoners can now also use an inter-library loan program.
Emmanuel Mitchell, newly-appointed Director of Library Services for the GDC, said the GDC is trying to “standardize and bring (libraries) up to the level that all of our other education programs have risen to.”
Currently, facility library catalogs are kept with individual prisons, often in different formats, sometimes handwritten. That GDC officials can’t immediately look up the number of books in their prisons is one symptom of that policy. Mitchell aims to digitize and centralize the catalog to better understand which facilities’ needs are not being met.
What’s on the shelves
The AJC’s analysis of book titles in the prison system found glaring omissions.
Although nearly two-thirds of Georgia inmates are black, more than half of libraries have no books on Martin Luther King Jr., and two-thirds of them don’t have anything on Malcolm X, two of the most celebrated African-American figures of the 20th century.
Mitchell can’t say how this happened, but said he is working diligently to correct it.
This imbalance in titles extends to religious materials. Every prison offers Bibles, but only two offer Qurans. Mitchell said that disparity exists because religious books are all donated, not purchased by the state.
Every library contains Shakespeare, and several carry dozens of his works.
But a Georgia prisoner won’t find any books about the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, one of the most famous protests of poor prison conditions in American history.
‘We’ve got to do better’
Reginald Dwayne Betts, a published poet with a law degree from Yale University, was at one time incarcerated.
“Books do the same thing for (prisoners) as they do for everyone else in America,” he said, “as a part of what allows you to be connected to places you’ve never been, people you’ve never met.”
Betts said in his experience prisoners found a way to get books they wanted.
“People in prison, people in jail, read the stuff that they want to read, and if the book doesn’t exist, they find a way to get it,” he said.
It’s not that prison libraries are perfect, he added, it’s just “really hard to expect a prison or jail to be operating on a higher or better level than local schools.”
More books mean more readers. The five prison libraries with the most books per person were also the five libraries with the most books checked out per person.
“We’ve got to do better if we want people to be better,” said Shelton. “Low literacy and incarceration go hand in hand.”
How we got the story
The AJC sought the book catalogues from each of Georgia's 31 prisons and obtained electronic catalogues from 12. Eleven prisons still maintain hand-written catalogues, making them unreadable for computer analysis. Others did not provide data. AJC data specialist Nick Thieme compared catalogues to each prison's population, and analyzed each catalogue for the range of titles offered. The analysis did not include any of the state's 16 private prisons and transitional centers, and the hundreds of county and city jails.
How to donate books to Georgia prisons
The Georgia Department of Corrections welcomes book donations. To learn how to donate, contact the office of Director of Library Services Emmanuel Mitchell at 478-992-5292, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The number of books per inmate varies widely in Georgia prisons, the AJC found. The chart below shows the number of books per inmate at 12 state prisons.
Telfair State Prison, 1.3
Baldwin State Prison, 2.03
Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison (GDCP), 2.8
Dooly State Prison, 3.2
Georgia State Prison, 3.56
Washington State Prison, 3.8
Phillips State Prison, 4.05
Pulaski State Prison, 8.2
Metro Reentry Facility, 10.4
Montgomery State Prison, 11.6
Central State Prison, 12.5
Walker State Prison, 18.1
Source: Georgia Department of Corrections
Chatham County Jail revises its book program
On Thursday, the Chatham County Jail in Savannah told the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia that it planned changes to a book program for inmates that had been discontinued in early April.
After the cancellation, inmates were limited to whichever books and magazines fit on a cart that was occasionally wheeled through the facility. ACLU attorney Kosha Tucker urged the jail to rescind the policy in a letter calling it a violation of inmates’ First Amendment rights.
“As a constitutional lawyer, I can say very confidently that (reading in jail) is a right,” said Tucker, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. “It’s a First Amendment right to have access to books when you’re in prison and you’re in jail. It doesn’t matter what someone might believe, that’s just the law.”
— Nick Thieme