To fix the US prison system, give every inmate the daily newspaper

A book is a buoy, but a newspaper can save you.
A book is a buoy, but a newspaper can save you.
Image: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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I was never an avid fiction reader before being incarcerated. But once inside, the last page of every novel I read arrived with an emotional thud, because I knew I would have to re-submerge myself into prison reality. Real life was never as good as the story I had been reading.  To finish a book was often so disheartening that sometimes I wondered if I should even start another one, knowing how I would feel when I finished.

Newspapers were different for me, at least while the prison library at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institute still carried them. Better than any book, newspapers were lifesavers that pulled me closer to shore because each new edition marked a new day, an invitation to rejoin a world that kept moving while I was inside.

Other women would come into the library—women whom I knew to be part of the 1.5 million inmates across the country who are functionally illiterate—to figure out their horoscopes in the paper, just to confirm that something would happen that day. Even a two-sentence horoscope reminded them that they had futures.

Reading can save an inmate. A novel is a buoy in prison; it keeps you afloat because you can enter someone else’s life without ever leaving the facility. But not everyone in prison can read a whole book. Because I’ve witnessed that struggle first-hand, perhaps that’s why I’m one of the few who know that reforming the US corrections system means focusing on basic adult literacy—and therefore that providing university-level courses to inmates isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

In late July, the Obama administration announced a pilot program to restore Pell Grants to the US correctional system. Those grants—abolished for the prison population in 1993—would now fund tuition, books and educational expenses to inmates who want to pursue university courses while incarcerated.

Many take this as a sign of change for our broken US correctional system and a new approach to halting recidivism. But they seem to have forgotten that other forms of inmate access to higher education have already failed.

As part of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, Pennsylvania’s longest serving senator and correctional education champion Arlen Specter introduced “grants to States for workplace and community transition training for incarcerated individuals.” These grants to states, or “Specter funds,” underwrote college classes in prisons from 1998 until 2011, when Congress refused to authorize them further. During those 13 years when some prisoners were able to access federally-funded college programming, recidivism rates remained high.

Today, considering some states’ current push to reduce sentences and thin out populations in federal and state correctional facilities, it is unclear that contemporary prisoners would even spend enough time behind bars to apply to complete a college course.

The bigger news for criminal justice reform has actually been overlooked. It came earlier in July, when Illinois federal district court Judge Matthew Kennelly held, in the case of Koger v. Dart, that Cook County Jail’s policy of prohibiting newspapers violated inmates’ First Amendment right to read and receive news.

Now newspapers can come into correctional facilities. This is a huge step toward the kind of foundational education that inmates need.

The majority of US inmates cannot read or read at a very low level, according to a 2003 study by advocacy organization Proliteracy America, and nationwide, only 9% of inmates with low literacy skills receive literacy training while incarcerated.

Injecting literacy into correctional facilities is hard. Many prisons lack libraries because they can’t hire librarians. Ones that do have libraries can’t afford to buy books. Prisoner reading programs have been shipping in books to make up for the shortfall but security concerns prevent certain books from entering: ones with spiral binding, ones about weapons, etc.

But all of the security concerns about newspapers were overcome in the Koger v. Dart decision, because there is little lethal potential in a broadsheet. The prison’s claim that inmates can use newspapers to clog toilets wasn’t enough to flush the Constitution.

Newspapers’ advantages for any remedial reader are many: the journalistic approach to stories enhances comprehension, stories are varied and change daily, reading editorials and op-eds fosters critical thinking skills.

In the absence of sorely needed literacy training, self-appointed jailhouse lawyers and teachers instruct other inmates in almost every facility. My own privilege ended up nominating me as the jailhouse lawyer and unofficial tutor to fellow inmates at York Correctional Institute, and necessity confirmed me.

This is not to say that I was the only literate inmate there, but I was the literate inmate whose class and background made her feel so guilty that she felt compelled to help others. I was called upon both as the witness and the remedy to the problem of substandard literacy among incarcerated women.

I don’t know how to teach someone to read; all I could do was explain words’ meanings after students sounded them out. In my experience, remedial readers are often embarrassed that they can’t read better and can resent efforts to help them, so any attempt to teach them has to be short.

Starting a book with a woman who can’t read well only highlights her lack of ability, because after an hour, you’ve only advanced two pages. But a newspaper article—when you can find one that’s been discarded—she can complete. See? You did it! You finished.

I believe that whatever effect those millions of dollars in Pell grants to prisoners across the United States will achieve, the same could be done with simple subscriptions to USA Today, plus a local paper, for every inmate. Plus the right to read in their own housing units, at their own pace, with more in-prison tutors.

In prison, privilege always leaves you lonely. It does the same when you get out into a world intent on reform. I may be the only person in the US who can tell you that Pell grants aren’t a sign of social revolution. But if everyone—including inmates—has the access and ability to read a newspaper, we’ll read revolution in the headlines when it comes.