Some people’s first introduction to prison literacy programs may not have been incarceration, but rather watching Shawshank Redemption. In the cult classic, two inmates revamp an under-funded, under-stocked library in their Maine State Prison. While this story does reveal some harrowing realities and disparities of incarceration, its representation of prison libraries and literacy programs is not nearly as universal.
Before discussing prison literacy programs, it is vital to understand literacy rates of those incarcerated and the systemic flaws in public education that causes these numbers. 70% of prisoners struggle with literacy, while 45% lack functional literacy (brinklit.org). People in prison are 13-24% more represented in lower levels of literacy, meaning they are disproportionately illiterate in comparison the rest of the population. Black and Hispanic inmates face even lower levels of literacy than not only white prisoners but also white people in and out of prison (brink lit.org). Though it may seem obvious that literacy rates are lower in communities with worse public education, it may not be as obvious that there is a link between education levels and imprisonment. This link, commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, reveals a correlation between the amount of education one receives, the amount of policing and discipline in one’s school, and their likelihood to be incarcerated.
A Northeastern University study found that men who drop out of high school were 47 times more likely to be jailed than college graduates (good.is). However, dropping out is not the only way to increase likelihood of incarceration. Many students’ first introduction to the criminal justice system is in their own school, due to an overwhelming presence of police officers in schools. 14 million students in the United States have police in their schools but no school psychologists, nurses, counselors, or social workers (aclu.org). Schools with police presence had nearly 5 times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct versus schools without police presence, even after controlling school poverty (justicepolicy.org). The presence of police in schools has been posited by many as keeping schools and students safer, but the disproportionately high arrest rates for black, hispanic, LGBTQ+, and disabled students prove otherwise: police presence makes students, especially those from marginalized communities, feel more unsafe and increases their risk for future incarceration.
The majority of arrests made in schools are not for drug and alcohol use or weapon possession but rather “disorderly conduct” (justicepolicy.org). Georgia is one of the states most overtly against police presence in schools. Chief Judge of Georgia Juvenile Court Steven Teske reported that zero tolerance policies, which call for strict discipline and policing in public schools, proved to have a “negative impact on graduation rates and school safety” (judiciary.senate.gov). Numerous other reports have been done on police presence in schools, namely one in New York City conducted by state’s School-Justice Partnership Task Force. Data from the New York District Attorney’s Office found that of the 914 arrests made in Manhattan public schools, 79% were also misdemeanors, but 63% were later dismissed (nycourts.gov). These dismissals were not made until students had spent time out of school to go to court appearances. Policing in public schools leads to more arrests and puts black students who are already at higher risk of incarceration at even higher risk, which explains why the school-to-prison pipeline affects mainly black communities.
So how does school over-policing relate to prison illiteracy? So glad you asked. They’re related in a number of ways. Firstly and more generally, students who feel unsafe in school due to police presence have higher rates of absenteeism, having to sacrifice their education for their personal safety. Secondly, students who are arrested or suspended are taken out of school. Many spend time at court appearances instead. Thirdly, minority students are already more prone to lower literacy rates and incarceration due to systemic bias in our criminal justice and disparities in our educational system, so the prevalence of an force that disproportionately discriminates, arrests, and kills them only increases their likelihood to be incarcerated. Policing schools doesn’t protect students from incarceration. It brings incarceration to their classrooms. Prison literacy programs are critical for inmates to continue their education since they do not have access to formal schooling. However, the majority of these programs are utterly lacking.
There are a multitude of organizations and public libraries that donate books to prisons in-need, but the content of these books is heavily restricted by the prisons themselves. Literature on race and civil rights is disproportionately subject to ban for fear that these books “threaten to disrupt a prison’s social order” (pen.org). Many states take censorship even further, compiling lists of up to 15,000 titles that are out-right banned from prisons, many of which are books about race (pen.org). Texas has a banned over 10,000 books from prisons, including The Color Purple and books on The Civil Rights Movement (pen.org). Very few states have made these lists public, preventing organizations that bring books to prisons from fully-informed advocacy. While a federal ruling ensures that prisoners can appeal censorship through a review process, the reviewers don’t have any set criteria and are mostly affiliated directly with prisons as correctional officers. So, those reviewing censorships are authorities of prisons and review their own colleagues’ decisions, which they usually uphold (pen.org).
There are other restrictions that further literary censorship in prisons, namely restrictions on where prisoners can buy books. Many prisons have pre-approved vendors from which prisoners can access books, but they have to buy these books with their own wage, despite these titles being available for free in public libraries and other online services (pen.org). Because these vendors are only selling to prisoners, they have a monopoly over the selection and pricing. Books Through Bars, a non-profit that brings books to prisons across the United States, looked at the catalogue of the first five pre-approved vendors of New York State.
The entire catalogue only included: “five romance novels, fourteen bibles and other religious texts, twenty-four drawing or coloring books, twenty-one puzzle books, eleven guitar, chess, and how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus” (pen.org). Not only does this abysmal selection reveal a lack of variety, but it also reveals a lack of books. The American Library Association recommends 15 books per prisoner. In 2000, a report found prisons had on average only 7 books per inmate (pen.org). This number only decreases as the rate of incarceration increases, which it has since 2000. Additionally, families and friends are prohibited from sending books directly to prisoners, furthering the emotional distance prisoners have with their loved ones (pen.org).
Despite several studies that prove providing books and bibliotherapy in prisons reduces the effects of depression and other psychological disorders and decreases an inmate’s likelihood to re-offend by 50%, prison libraries are under-staffed, under-stocked, and under-funded (brinklit.org , motherjones.com). Reading not only helps inmates who have incomplete education, but it also gives inmates hope, allows them to reflect, and provides an escape.
It is obvious that our culture deems reading to be a fundamentally beneficial practice. There are over 160,000 libraries in the United States (libguides.ala.org). Our culture loves reading so much that we have places where you can purchase even more books so you can monetarily pay gratitude to writers that create the fabric of our society. Why is it that when it comes to prisons, we ignore the cognitive and psychological benefits, we limit access, and we hide information? The school-to-prison pipeline is cyclical, ensuring literary restriction to future generations. The more schools are over-policed, the more marginalized students are made to feel unsafe in their schools, the more likely they are to be incarcerated, and the more likely they are to be deprived of furthering their education.