Time Off for Book Behavior

Four days less for every book Brazil’s inmates read, says their Governo Federal. Inmates earn up to 48 days off each year for reading 12 classics or 12 works of philosophy, science, even humor. It’s an effective, creative approach that need not produce voter-ready results to be successful. And why not? ‘Cause we already know that reading is the most basic of human skills, and just being able to understand those seven words could have a Butterfly Effect. 

A Butterfly Effect is where a small change at one place in a complex system can have a large effect elsewhere. Though it also happens to work, teaching prison inmates to read is a truly humanitarian gesture requiring no quantifiable numbers or lowered crime stats as a proof that it does: the very act of spreading literacy is like giving sight to the blind. Unfortunately, here in the U.S. our lawmakers can’t sell each other on the promise of a good deed anymore than you or I can poop gold. But so what? That’s no excuse for not helping someone help themselves, or for not helping ’em reach through the razor wire to interpret the world anew.

First of all, a lot of folks have to get past the issue of whether men and women behind bars deserve their good deed. And they have to be willing to do so without expecting a thank you. Finally, they might have to change their definition of a “good deed,” especially since they’ll have no idea who’s gonna be turning the pages of their treasured old books. Some people just can’t get around that.

A guy I know has a garage full of paperbacks, floor-to-ceiling adventure and science fiction. He doesn’t like the idea of dragging ’em down the driveway for a garage sale and he’s failed to make good on his daughter’s requests to remove the Old Testament fire hazard. He’s spoken a few times about having Goodwill come and get ’em but he never makes the call. When I approached him with the idea of contacting a books-to-prisoners program, he got all “Get-off-my-lawn”. That’s okay, he may not know what it’s like to turn someone onto Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” so I’ll keep pestering.

But I can understand why he’s wary: when I was locked up one of my cell neighbors, the most voracious reader I’d ever met, burned through James Michener and Ayn Rand like they were Rolling Stone. He also burned his business partners and put a bullet in his wife’s head, so given his evident personal anguish the ravenous escapism was understandable, if not entirely productive. In other words, he was a hell of a Scrabble player but not someone for whom you’d do a solid, especially if it meant dragging box after box outta your garage in the summer heat.

So yeah, it can be difficult to convince people to donate books to inmates. Halting deliberations at simply “doing a good deed” is encouraged, though there are plenty of inmates with brighter futures than my former tier acquaintance, and these are people who would benefit tremendously from, say, owning a dictionary. I’m no miracle of penal rehabilitation, but I was one of ’em.

I think Brazil is onto something, that “Redemption Through Reading” proposes genuine rehabilitative programming at virtually no cost. And I think it’ll see results, too. Call it goodwill or call it something else: literacy reduces recidivism. Nothing is more important for successful reintegration than this simplest of human skills.

Got books? Here’re a few links to check out – my favorite is SureShot Books. They make it possible for families and friends of inmates to send them multilingual books, magazines, newspapers from all over the country, and even greeting cards.

Books To Prisoners (BTP) is a Seattle-based, all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that sends books to prisoners in the United States.

Prisoners’ Reading  Encouragement Project  (PREP) is a not-for-profit organization, incorporated in November 2000, to serve as a support organization to prison libraries and educational programs.

Prison Book Program is a grassroots organization that exists for one purpose – to send free books to prisoners.

Need more convincing?

Changing Lives Through Literature is a book-based alternative sentencing program based out of U. Mass Dartmouth boasting a recidivism rate of less than 20%.


One thought on “Time Off for Book Behavior

  1. Thanks, John. I think I know what I’m doing this week-end. My abode is lousy with books I’ll probably never re-read. And who knows, maybe there’s an inmate out there –right now– who dosen’t realize that a biography of Adlai Stevenson is about to change his life, or Kahil Gibran’s The Phropet (it’s a good read, but why do people keep giving me this book? I must have four copies. Do people look at me and think, “Now there’s a guy who could use a little Lebanese philosophy?”) Oops…The Prophet, not “The Phropet.” The Phropet is that Dr. Seuss book no one seemed to like. He really shouldn’t have tried to go “blue”. No one likes porn that rhymes.

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