Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books for crooks? Why I donated to the Prison Book Program

Ten minutes ago I donated five American Century dictionaries to prisoners in Massachusetts.

The Prison Book Program is a grassroots organization that has been sending books to prisoners since 1972. Based in my own backyard (just outside of Boston), the organization sends free books to prisoners and is currently hoping to collect enough money to buy 1,000 college-level dictionaries for inmates.

Wondering why I donated five dictionaries to inmates?
  • First and foremost, I believe in a right to education for all. The prison system in the United States focuses on a punitive form of justice, not a rehabilitative one, but an educated prisoner makes for a more useful member of society after his release. By providing books (and dictionaries) we are encouraging inmates to educate themselves and become more productive members of society after their releases.

  • The majority of inmates currently incarcerated are reading at a sub-standard level. Not only are dictionaries are important to understand words in books read for pleasure, but they are important for inmates who are signing important legal documents. It is critical that people understand all the materials given to them and dictionaries allow prisoners to do that.

  • Plenty of people make poor decisions that land them in prison, but many learn from their mistakes and should have an opportunity to better themselves. Other inmates are incarcerated due to a failure of the justice system. All prisoners should have access to books, but I feel especially passionate that those people who are unjustly locked up and those who have a desire to improve themselves through education should have access to all the books they can read.
There are, of course, half a dozen more reasons why this cause is important to me, but I think the inmates say it best. The Prison Book Program website publishes actual requests from inmates. One says,
"I have to have my room mate [sic] help me with the big words... I have only been reading now for about 21 months. I am 46 years old and when I get out of prison, my son will be 11 years old. And I would love to be able to read and write to my son. So please if you all could see to help me I will be able to help my son when I get home. The dictionary will help learne [sic] how to spell big words."
Like this inmate, many of people who end up in prison have the proverbial odds stacked against them. These are low-income people with little or no education, living in poor neighborhoods, and failing to see that there are any positive options. I only wish that the man quoted above had better opportunities for education in his youth; if he had, perhaps he wouldn't be in prison today. Since he is in prison, however, I'm glad that he's making an effort to improve his circumstances by learning to read and write. When he gets out of prison he'll be able to teach his son that it's never to late to learn.

If you're interested in donating dictionaries to inmates, know that the Prison Book Program is buying 1,000 dictionaries at the wholesale price of $2.47. By donating less than it costs to buy a latte at Starbucks, you'll send a much-needed and much-appreciated dictionary to an inmate. Give up fancy coffee for a single week and you can send 10 dictionaries to folks who really need them. Besides, you can donate online with the click of a button.

For more information on the Prison Book Program, visit their website:

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