Books carry inmates beyond the bars

“Reading is where I found freedom,” says a formerly incarcerated man who’s placing microlibraries in prisons across the United States.

Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Reginald Dwayne Betts is providing "freedom libraries" to U.S. prisons.

Libraries have been called the cornerstone of democracy. They are sources of information available to anyone, regardless of background, wealth, or social status.

For formerly incarcerated people reentering society, they can provide a way to search for jobs and learn skills in a world that can seem to have passed them by. But libraries are also a valuable resource for the more than 2 million men and women still imprisoned in the United

While providing libraries within prison walls is not a new idea, their quality can vary greatly. Often incarcerated people are looking for legal tomes, researching possible ways to appeal their sentences. Religious and self-help books are popular, too. And like other librarygoers, people in prison just thirst to learn something new.

Last year the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced it would spend $5.3 million to distribute microlibraries of 500 books each to prisons in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.

The man behind the library project, called Freedom Reads, is Reginald Dwayne Betts, who since his release from prison has published his poetry and is studying law at Yale University. Earlier this year he was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant.” The 500 selected books, which Mr. Betts helped to pick out, and which he calls a “freedom library,” cover a wide range of topics. They include both fiction and nonfiction, with an emphasis on books aimed at making the reader think.

“My own experience as a formerly incarcerated individual has been distinctively shaped by the power of books,” he said at the time the microlibrary project was announced last year. “In books is where I found redemption; reading is where I found freedom.”

Through Freedom Reads, he says he hopes that “each and every one of my incarcerated brothers and sisters will be able to find a newfound freedom and hope that only literature can bring.”

Mr. Betts visited Boston recently, helping to install a “freedom library” in a cell at a state prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts. It’s believed to be the cell in which Malcolm X was incarcerated during the late 1940s.

Through reading, men and women can travel to new worlds, despite being physically confined. “These books can become a part of their life for as long as they have to be there,” he told The Boston Globe. “Also, the books can become a conduit for them not having to be there.”

Equipped with a good library, those behind bars can encounter new ideas that expand their views of life and its possibilities.

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