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What I Learned in Prison Libraries

• J. Alex Kelly

I usually found the most enjoyable part of a prison to be the library. The same goes for juvenile justice programs. In all, I have visited about a dozen of each, adult and juvenile facilities, and each visit surprisingly reminded me how badly people want to learn. Thankfully, I made these visits as an employee of these agencies.

These lodgings of literature were sometimes large collections, and other times were a few humble shelves of books that were donated by the employees and community. Regardless, these libraries tended to be clean, calm, and a privileged place to be. You might think that’s because the library offers some sort of safety or solace for those who are incarcerated. Truth is though that in these alternative places of learning, the way inmates and youth talked to me revealed why their libraries were so revered.

I found that young and old alike had to confront a chapter of their lives gone wrong when they were surrounded by opportunities to learn. Likewise, it is there that the incarcerated faced a necessary piece of making the best of things if they get a second chance. When I spoke to delinquent youth and adult inmates, they consistently presented the best of their character and self-worth when they were surrounded by books.

The Snowball Effect

Unfortunately, the missed opportunities in life for these youth and adults are a common tale, often with a connection to their early education or lack thereof. According to the Anne E. Casey Foundation, 7 out of every 10 prison inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level. The Casey Foundation strongly urges that reading proficiency rates are critical to ensuring that a child is “socially and emotionally on track” with his or her peers. Otherwise, the early inability to read equates to long-term inability to learn, nearly guaranteeing a young person will be financially and socially landlocked for years if not a lifetime.


Many states’ education systems have and some still do fuel this dilemma by perpetually socially promoting these struggling readers, despite the resulting likelihood that they will then never catch-up to their more literate peers. By middle and high school, the emotional stress associated with academic underperformance snowballs into an avalanche of negative behaviors, including poor conduct and attendance at school, and difficulties socializing. This snowball effect often leads to a child’s education becoming the responsibility of the juvenile justice system.

A Convergence on Prevention

Not surprisingly, there have been recent convergences of some states’ juvenile justice and educational systems. For example, in Florida the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Roadmap to System Excellence outlines prevention strategies to avert “the consequences of a lack of education” for an at-risk youth. Their research team found that there is a strong relationship between risk factors for youth who are committed to deep-end juvenile programs and a student’s status in school. During the 2014 Legislative Session, similar realizations led the Florida Legislature to approve legislation that, amongst other things, requires the state’s Department of Education to report on student outcome data for youth in the juvenile justice continuum.

It is commendable for state policymakers to act on these opportunities to use data to address the problems closer to the source. However, in the larger picture of education, prevention must begin as early as possible in order to address the needs of our most disadvantaged students.

A dozen years ago Florida pioneered placing an emphasis on reading as a gateway to learning. Within the first 30 days of school kindergarten students are screened to identify students with a reading deficiency. Florida’s policy seeks to address those deficiencies before the fourth grade, stressing that third grade students are learning to read, while fourth graders are reading to learn. The state ended social promotion and implemented policies for early literacy screening, parent notification, individual reading plans, intensive interventions, and retention as the last resort. Over the course of a decade, the percentage of students with significant reading deficiencies was cut nearly in half, going from 29 percent who were functionally illiterate in 2001 to 16 percent in 2011.

September is National Literacy Month

As we celebrate National Literacy Month, we can be thankful other state level policymakers have learned that literacy is necessary for a young person’s emotional and educational stability. This year Mississippi is in full implementation mode of its Literacy-Based Promotion Act of 2013, a law that was modeled after the success of Florida’s policies. Recently, the Mississippi Department of Education released its Literacy Communications Toolkit to help provide the kind of wrap-around support to parents, educators and community leaders to fully realize the positive outcomes this law will have for the Magnolia State’s students.

South Carolina also recently joined the movement in June with the enactment of its “Read to Succeed” legislation. The state’s new and comprehensive policy will place a heavy focus on teacher training and comprehensive interventions that focus on making every effort possible to get a student reading on grade level, before retention would be used as a last resort accountability.

Always Be Thankful

There is no question that both young and old in the justice systems made an impression on me, when I realized how badly they wanted to learn. Let’s be real, you don’t expect that when visiting a compound of 1,300 inmates or dozens of at-risk youth who’ve seen much harder days than you can ever imagine. You expect that their immediate survival is foremost on their minds. The truth is though that the young and old in state custody have hopes and ideas too for who they might be one day. The realization of a pathway to literacy is empowering for both third graders, as it is for adults who are still learning to read. I am just thankful that more and more policymakers are realizing that it is better for self-worth and society to achieve these goals as third graders.

About the author

J. Alex Kelly