For Prisoners, Reading Is So Much More Than a Pastime — It’s a Way to Change Their Lives

Twice a week, volunteers climb down the steep steps to the basement of Brooklyn’s Freebird Books. Once inside, they’re greeted by hundreds of books, stacks of brown paper bags and piles of letters. Before long, each book will be in the hands of an inmate somewhere in the U.S.
The cramped bookstore basement serves as the headquarters of NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer-run group that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states (the remaining states are either covered by similar programs or barred from receiving packages). In any given week the organization, which has been around for 21 years, receives hundreds of book requests: a Scrabble dictionary, a beginner’s guide to playing the guitar, a science-fiction novel — the list goes on. Each year, they ship somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes to federal and state prisons.
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other developed country, with 10.6 million cycling in and out of the criminal justice system each year. Often, these prisons have libraries that are understocked and outdated. Others might not have a library at all, or at least not one that’s accessible to all inmates. New York’s infamous Rikers Island, for example, runs its library from a single cart. With roughly 8,000 inmates spread out among the complex’s 10 jails, getting your hands on even one book can feel like finding a treasure.
NYC Books Through Bars believes education is a fundamental right. It’s also one of the strongest tools to reduce recidivism — a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that educational intervention can lower a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of reoffending by about 40 percent.

A volunteer handles the mail. Besides fielding book requests, the organization also receives thank-you notes and hand-drawn cards.

But over the past decade prisons have cut back on educational programs, and inmates have been excluded from receiving Pell Grants, the financial-aid program for low-income college students, since the 1990s — all of which makes accessing educational support behind bars a challenge.
“In some instances, receiving a book is the beginning of an education,” says Daniel Schaffer, a collective member who’s been volunteering with NYC Books Through Bars for more than 16 years.
Instead of shipping donated books to a central prison library, the organization mails the titles directly to the inmates who request them, a novelty among programs offering similar services.
“Sending the books to the individuals adds to the strength of the project,” says Schaffer, adding that because some prisoners might not have families that visit, write or mail packages, NYC Books Through Bars might be the only contact they have with the outside world.
Schaffer stresses that a mailed book doesn’t reach just one person — inside a prison’s walls, books are passed around and shared.  
Prisoners learn about the organization largely through word of mouth. And when one person hears about the books program, it’s just a matter of time before letters start arriving, Schaffer says. Sometimes they ask that a specific title be sent; other people are happy to receive anything from a particular genre. Among the most requested are dictionaries.
Because the books and packing materials are donated by the community, and Freebird lets the organization use its basement space for free, the program costs very little to operate. There are no paid employees, either. The only expense is postage, which is collected mostly through fundraising events. Even then, the organization cuts down on shipping costs by bundling four books in a package, at a rate of between $2.75 and $4.31 to ship.
Every Sunday and Monday, 10 to 20 volunteers collect, wrap and ship off the books. By the end of a three-hour shift, hundreds of brown parcels are stacked, ready to make their way to correctional facilities across the country.
Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds — students, librarians, archivists and editors among them — and not all hold the same beliefs about the current state of the criminal justice system. Some consider themselves abolitionists, while others promote reform. Still, everyone shows up for the same reason: to have an immediate effect on people on the inside.
“The thing that links everyone together, ultimately, is that we think the people who are in prison at least deserve to be treated as [humans],” Schaffer says.
“If, in an evening, I can do 20 or 30 or 40 books then that’s the number of individuals who are directly impacted,” he adds.
As requests for titles flood in to NYC Books Through Bars, so do the thank-yous. Letters, pop-up cards, drawings and other artwork from inmates line the shelves of the Freebird Books basement and get posted on Facebook. For the volunteers, the handmade tokens are a friendly reminder of the work they do.
Says Schaffer, “It helps to keep in mind that what you’re doing actually does impact people.”

How to Build a Better Jail

Rikers Island, the infamous and isolated jail complex located off the coastline of New York City, is officially being shut down. And in its place is the possibility of new community jails that are designed, specifically, for better treatment of inmates.
Improving the city’s jails, and especially Rikers — which critics have long charged is inhumane, unsafe and dysfunctional — has been a top-line agenda for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Since taking office, his administration has focused on curbing the jail population; reducing the use of solitary confinement; and easing the transition back to society for the formerly incarcerated.
In conjunction with closing Riker’s 10 jails, an independent commission last year recommended the city open smaller facilities — called “justice hubs” — that would be located next to local courts and integrated into existing neighborhoods. The vision for this modern system of jails includes built-in amenities that would be shared with local residents (think exercise facilities, community gardens and art studios).
“Our understanding about design and incarceration has evolved significantly since the jails on Rikers Island were built,” says Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “Light, sound and the arrangement of space are important in creating a safer, calmer environment for the people residing and working there.”
There’s evidence prisoners’ surroundings can affect their outcomes. In upstate New York, for example, camplike facilities that are embedded among pristine lakes and trees, and where inmates sleep in barracks, not cells, have seen markedly low recidivism rates.
The idea of using design and architecture to influence behavior is not a new one for New York City. In August of last year, officials partnered with the Center for Court Innovation and the social-impact design firm Zago to overhaul the interior spaces of Manhattan Criminal Court. Changes included installing new, visitor-friendly signage and erecting a defendants’ bill of rights.
“Manhattan Criminal Court is a pretty foreboding and intimidating place, especially for those who are there for the first time,” says Emily LaGratta, director of procedural justice initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation. She notes that many courts across the country evoke similar negative feelings. “Courthouses were built years ago, when the justice system was addressing a different scope of problems. That, plus new innovation, has imposed additional needs on these spaces. So a lobby that was built to be grand and open is now accommodating security lines and magnetometers.”
Just as the needs of courthouses have changed, so too have the needs of New York’s jails. The city has announced a plan to reduce incarceration numbers to 5,000 in 10 years, and officials are exploring the possibility of eliminating the cash-bail system.
But incorporating the proposed justice hubs — and the prisoners within them — into residential neighborhoods might be a hard sell for the city.
Still, officials are pushing for jails that could address community needs, similar to a public library’s social outreach programs, that would help reduce the stigma of incarceration while building stronger, healthier communities.

To replace Rikers Island, city officials have recommended smaller “justice hubs” that seamlessly integrate into communities while helping to reduce the stigma of incarceration.

Initially, the effort seemed purely physical — move inmates to jails that are closer to their lawyers, courthouses and neighborhood resources. But it also got city officials thinking: Can correctional facilities be designed in a way that’s safer for inmates and guards, while also engaging the communities in which they’d be built?
“Over the past few decades we have learned, and commonsense informs, that when those who are incarcerated have regular contact with their families and lawyers, it improves both the atmosphere inside, the relationships with officers and staff, and the transition back to neighborhoods,” Glazer says. “This is especially important in jails where most people stay for a short period of time.”
The city issued requests for proposals last year on designs for the new jails and in January chose the firm Perkins Eastman, which was awarded $7.5 million and given 10 months to finalize a blueprint.
“Buildings are not static things … they work with or against the people that are intended to be within them, and there is no better example than a prison,” says Michael Murphy, co-founder and executive director of MASS Designs in Boston. “Even in the most well intentioned prisons, they are intended to separate or to torture people who are incarcerated and restrict access to freedoms.
“There’s almost an intentional lack of design,” he adds.
In reimagining what tomorrow’s prisons will look like, firms like Murphy’s are turning to the past, when other historical institutions left their aesthetic imprint.
“A great example are public libraries,” says Murphy. “You have the Carnegie libraries largely built with foundation dollars from the Carnegie family, which are these beautiful, opulent temples to books.”
Compare that to the “Lindsay boxes” of the 1970s, when New York Mayor John Lindsay had pushed for a library branch in every neighborhood. The results were quickly constructed, one-story buildings made of cinder block.
“It’s a stark difference in imagination,” Murphy continues. “We’ve lowered our expectations of what we deserve. That’s what prisons identify.”
And what we know about design with the greater good in mind is that it works, says Brad Samuels of SITU, an architectural research and design firm in New York.
“These [kinds of designs] are already happening; they’re not speculative,” Samuels says, adding that his firm has worked with low-wage immigrant communities to build housing in Queens, where families are often stuffed into cramped quarters. “We found the best way to build is through community groups and organizations who understand what their needs are.”

Behind Prison Walls, This Program Demonstrates That It’s Never Too Late to Learn

While spending a year and a half in a New Jersey prison on drug charges, Walter Fortson enrolled in a class offered by a local community college, knowing that the credits would change the way the world saw him. But he didn’t expect them to affect the way he thought about himself and his future.
“In prison, I realized that there is an incredible value to learning,” Fortson says.
Fortson, a 30-year-old from Philadelphia, dropped out of college prior to his incarceration, but his epiphany resulted in a reversal of his approach to education. While living in a halfway house awaiting parole in 2009, he enrolled at New Jersey’s Rutgers University and graduated with high honors. Later, he received the prestigious Truman Scholarship to study criminology at the University of Cambridge in England.
Fortson believes that educational opportunities for prisoners are key to giving them a chance in a justice system that “does a good job of dehumanizing people,” and so when he returned from overseas, he got busy — expanding upon work that he started as an undergrad, that brought Rutgers students into New Jersey prisons to tutor inmates.
It was tutoring, if not fate, that introduced Fortson to Jim Farrin, 78, a longtime businessman who had recently returned to Princeton, where he was a member of the university’s class of 1958. There, Farrin founded the Petey Greene program, which has students tutor prison inmates (some of whom are working toward their high-school equivalency degrees) three hours each week. Fortson started a chapter at Rutgers, and now serves as a regional field manager for the initiative, working to help bring more inmates closer to the educational transformation that he experienced.
He believes that tutoring the incarcerated has the power to change the attitudes of college students who provide lessons — and that putting a name and a face to the anonymous prisoners housed in our nation’s jails is something that’s essential in order to reform the criminal justice system. “You understand that everyone who goes to prison isn’t some serial rapist murderer that’s trying to kill you or break into your house,” Fortson explains.
Farrin and Fortson are correct about the transformative impact of the program: A 2013 New Jersey Department of Corrections study found that program participants have higher passing rates on high-school equivalency exams, while also demonstrating statistically significant improvements in reading and math.
More than 400 students have volunteered with the organization. Currently, 16 colleges and universities on the East Coast have Petey Greene programs and Princeton’s remains the largest, with around 100 volunteers. But Farrin and Fortson aren’t done; these pioneers aim to have Petey Greene programs in 100 schools by 2017.
The ongoing expansion has been made possible by an army of committed students who, much like Fortson, were changed in unexpected ways by prison tutoring. Those students, Grace Li, Shaina Watrous, and Joe Barrett, all classmates at Princeton who graduated in 2014, got involved with Petey Greene early in their time on campus, and they say the tutoring defined much of their college experience. “Prison reform became the thing that I cared about most,” Li says.
The recent alumni all work full-time as regional field managers (like Fortson) and serve alongside another former Princeton tutor, Sandra Knuth, to facilitate the initiative’s growth. Already, they’re seeing progress — Petey Greene is now active at 11 schools outside of New Jersey. But with each new chapter comes additional challenges.
Dealing with large, bureaucratic institutions is difficult to say the least, and catering to their needs has created tutoring programs that vary from the original model developed at Princeton. To make Petey Greene work in 100 schools, partner agreements for universities were recently created that include mandatory workshops on cultural humility, which help tutors understand their privilege and prevent misunderstandings that might damage the relationship between tutor and student. There is also a strict attendance policy: One unexcused absence and a tutor is out of the program.
The expansion is taking the program into some of the country’s most notorious correctional facilities. It is currently working to bring NYU and Columbia University undergrads to the Rikers Island New York City jail complex to tutor 16- and 17-year-olds. Li, who serves the New York region, says that program participants will likely include some teens recently removed from punitive segregation — the official term of what’s commonly referred to as solitary confinement. (In December, the New York City Department of Corrections ended the use of punitive segregation for adolescents.)
Before the official launch of Petey Greene at NYU, Li worked with a group of students who, as part of a class they took, held a theater workshop for incarcerated boys. When the semester was up, they looked to Petey Greene to stay involved, and in their enthusiasm and transformation, Li sees echoes of her own.
That passion led Li and her equally inspired classmates to not only advance Petey Greene, but to fight the injustices they observed in prisons through other channels, too. They founded the rapidly growing advocacy group Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) at Princeton, which remains closely linked to Petey Greene. Oftentimes, tutors who want to address bigger issues in criminal justice reform join SPEAR, and when student advocates want to get a hands-on experience with the issue, or feel like they are making a more concrete impact, they sign up to tutor with Petey Greene.
Both Petey Greene and SPEAR understand that education is the key to reform — something that Fortson can personally attest to. “[While incarcerated,] I was looking for redemption,” Fortson says, “and I felt like education was the most viable way to transcend the stigma of having a criminal conviction.”
(Homepage photo: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers/Getty Images)