I give books to inmates. I visit death row prisons. When either of these things comes up in conversation, people always ask, “Why?”
For a long time, I didn’t really have a great answer. People either “get it” or they don’t. Preaching to the indoctrinated is easy, but converting the skeptics is nearly impossible.
Men and women serving time in prisons are told, both explicitly and implicitly, their lives have no value. That they have no purpose. Some of them believe this. I don’t believe it.
Books have built-in messages that there are greater ideals to serve, there is a tomorrow, and there are other people than ourselves.
Many inmates will leave prison someday and walk freely amongst us. Good things happen when prisoners have access to books. Books share knowledge, but they can also create curiosity. My utopian vision has ex-prisoners returning library books rather than returning to crime.
If the penal system’s goal is to reform, then books are only a natural part of this. If you believe in reform, you believe in books.
Many prisoners spent their childhoods without books. They learned how to read in school, but they were never given books at home. They are not illiterate. They are alliterate. They tell me they never owned a book until they were sitting in a jail cell. To deny prisoners books only continues an unprincipled cycle of alliterate behaviors.
A prisoner touched me with his tragic story years ago. In many ways, he changed my life. He spends his days in a prison cell, but his life has value.
So, when people ask me why I give books to prisoners, I always reply, “Everyone deserves a good book.”