Sentenced: Books on the Inside

by by Megan Hauptman

The second floor of a small brown house right off Broadway in Providence houses two rooms stuffed with bookshelves and boxes, organized into eclectic categories such as “Native American History,” “Medical,” and “Wiccan.” “Mystery” takes up an entire bookcase, flanked  by “Classics” and “Horror.” These rooms are the donated library of Providence’s Books through Bars program, a nonprofit that sends books to inmates across the country.

The books are collected from local donors, libraries and book drives. They are packaged up by volunteers every Tuesday and Sunday and sent, along with a handwritten note, to inmates all over the US. There are about thirty similar organizations in the US, loosely affiliated by the informational pamphlets that are passed around correctional facilities that list the addresses of all the programs. Since their libraries are small, most books-to-prisons organizations fill requests for genre or subject, rather than specific books.

Because it receives hundreds of letters per month, Books through Bars is usually about three months behind in responding to requests. The letters received range from brief note on a receipt slip, asking for books on calligraphy and comics, to a long letter written on the back of a bible page, asking for books about Woodstock, the Physician’s Desk Reference and magazines about motorcycles. Books through Bars estimates that they have sent out approximately 10,000 books in the past four years.


Raymond Grenier first got involved with Books through Bars four years ago, after he was held awaiting trial for nine months in the Intake Service Center of the RI Adult Correctional Institute (ACI). The intake center, unlike the other eight facilities on the same campus, is considered a jail rather than a prison, because most of its residents are temporary and unsentenced (the majority spend less than a week in the facility). Functioning primarily as a holding cell, Intake places little emphasis on educational or rehabilitative programs, and as such its current library consists of two small shelves of assorted books. For people like Grenier, who spent months in the facility awaiting his court date, this selection was far too small to serve as adequate reading material.

Grenier, whose case culminated in a mistrial, never served time in any of the other facilities, but thinks that Intake, temporary or not, should have a more extensive library. Talking about his own experience, he says “I went nuts not having a book for thirty days.” When he was released in 2008, he got involved with Providence Books through Bars, and became the director of the volunteer-run organization last year. Though in the past four years Books through Bars sent books to thirty-three states, it cannot send books to prisoners in the Rhode Island ACI, located only a few miles away in Cranston.

Policy at the ACI allows for outside donations to the prisons’ libraries, requested and regulated by a staff librarian, but will only allow individual prisoners to receive books sent by a publisher outside a fifty-mile-radius. Books through Bars is associated with a local distributor, Paper Nautilus Books, which allows them to send books to other prisons with similar requirements, but ACI policies invalidate them for the RI facility. Inmates in the RI state prison have to request books from a friend or family member who can order them from online retailers, such as Amazon, and have them shipped to the prison; this makes access to books cost-prohibitive for inmates from lower-income backgrounds or who have few contacts outside the facilities. Grenier has been meeting with administrators at the RI Department of Corrections to change their regulations to allow Books through Bars and other similar organizations to send books directly to prisoners at the ACI, but for now the policy stands.


Correctional facilities across the US have discretion in limiting the types of books prisoners are allowed to have; many have restrictions on hardcover books as well as the number of books prisoners can keep in their cells. Most also have limitations on content; the ACI restricts books that “may be contrary to appropriate security and custodial concerns.”  As well as specifically prohibiting sexually explicit content and weapons manuals, their restrictions verge into the amorphous, precluding books that “depict, describe or encourage activities that may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption.”

The extent to which this institutional censorship can be practiced was the subject of media attention in 2010, when it was discovered that a detention center in Berkeley, South Carolina, prohibited prisoners from having any books, save a soft-cover Bible. After a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the facility rescinded its total ban, but still heavily censored reading material, disallowing anything with staples. The Berkeley detention center’s defense—that staples could be used to jam locks and draw makeshift tattoos—tried to shift the discourse on books to issues of safety and order rather than of prisoners’ rights. In response to a renewed round of legal efforts by the ACLU against the revised restrictions, they now remove the staples from incoming publications, but their drawn out efforts to censor reading materials—the staple case was resolved in January of this year—point to a default prioritization of order over education.


“Books serve three purposes: education, diversion, and contact with the outside world,” states Grenier. “Education is the only proven way to reduce recidivism.” His sentiment echoes prison reform groups across the US, who argue that more money invested in education, both in and out of prison, will save the government money on sentencing. Education in prisons is under-prioritized when compared to money spent on prison construction and security, which increases every year. The RI ACI spends from $39,622 (Intake Service Center) to $172,352 (High Security) to house and guard one prisoner for one year. 67 percent of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested within three years of their release, and each sentence they serve costs the government far more than it would to invest in their education.

The “Education” section of the Federal Bureau of Prisons website describes a “variety of programs for inmates to achieve literacy and marketable skills”, and mentions that inmates who can fund their coursework may have access to some correspondence college courses. This focus on basic literacy and vocational skills instead of college certification reinforces the limitations on the job prospects of post-release prisoners.

The education levels of incarcerated individuals already compare poorly to that of the national population-- only 17 percent of incarcerated Americans have some type of post-secondary education, and 39 percent fall below a sixth-grade reading level. Statistics from the RI ACI are similarly bleak: 80 percent of inmates arrive without a high school diploma or GED, and 22 percent read below a sixth-grade level.

In an interview with the Providence Journal in 2010, Ralph Orleck, principal of the education programs at the ACI, says the data they’ve collected in RI shows that “inmates who leave with a GED or high school diploma are 18 percent less likely to re-offend, while those who take post-secondary classes or earn college degrees are 70 percent less likely to end up back in jail.”


While literacy and GED classes are common in state and federal facilities throughout the country, college-level educational programming in US prisons has decreased dramatically in the past twenty years. This can be traced back to the decision to eliminate Pell Grant funds for prisoners in 1994-- as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed by President Clinton-- and the subsequent dismantling of most prison college programs. In the year after Pell Grants were eliminated for prisoners, the number of college programs in prisons dropped from 772 to less than a dozen. While most states today do not provide inmates with any degree-bearing post-secondary educational opportunities, some colleges still provide classes in correctional facilities, funded primarily through private grants. The Community College of RI runs classes in the ACI that allow inmates to earn an associates degree or vocational certification, and five people received associates degrees this year through this program. High demand for classes, long waiting lists, and lack of public funding mean that programs like the one run by CCRI inevitably underserve inmates, who don’t have access to other higher-education opportunities.


In the twenty years since the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, along with cutting most public funding for post-secondary prison education, allocated $9.7 billion to prison construction, the US prison population has more than doubled—it hit one million in October of 1994 and has since grown to 2.3 million. Local and national statistics speak to the importance of education in reducing the prison population, and consequently, the ballooning prison budget. As prisons’ funding is funneled into security and construction costs, non-profit programs such as Books through Bars try to address at least a small part of the education deficit.


“A book [...] meant more to me than a stack of gold bars,” Grenier says, reflecting on his comparatively brief stay in the ACI.  Looking through the letters from inmates posted on a website run by the Prison Books Program, which has been sending books out of Quincy, MA since 1972, confirms Grenier’s estimation of the value of books in prison. There are several odes to dictionaries, testaments to books’ ability to connect one with the outside world, and reflections on compassion achieved through reading.  Jeffrey Watson, an inmate in a state prison in Dallas, Texas, identifies himself as an autodidact and points to the lack of sufficient higher education opportunities in prisons as why “inmates who desire to improve themselves through education have to take matters into their own hands [...] books are as necessary to this process as liquid is to quenching a thirst.”

MEGAN HAUPTMAN B'14.5 uses media mail.