This summer a newly established organization called Liberation Library is launching a life-changing program designed to provide books to youth who are incarcerated in Illinois prisons. Through fundraising and private donations, Liberation Library is gathering an inventory of books to mail to Illinois Department of Justice pilot program youth facilities in Kewanee, Perre Marquette, and Harrisburg. The intention is that youth participants will be able to select books of their choosing from the Library inventory, and they will be given the opportunity to connect with a Liberation Library pen pal.
In 2002, Illinois eliminated its budget for prison library materials (aside from law materials required by federal law), so in the last decade plus, prison libraries have seen no new fiction, literature, or popular reading. But depriving incarcerated youth of books is just bad policy – reading is good for young offenders and decreases recidivism. On the most obvious level, young offenders need to work on their reading skills. Studies show that youth and young adults are less likely to return to prison when they improve their reading skills while incarcerated, and this makes sense: improved literacy creates more opportunities. Practice reading increases the chances of getting a G.E.D., succeeding with vocational training, or just successfully navigating the outside world.
But in focusing on providing youth with selected fiction, Liberation Library offers a unique opportunity beyond just improving basic reading skills. Reading fiction teaches us all how to experience another person’s point of view, increasing empathy and pro-social behavior. Reading encourages hope, imagination, self-determination, and, for youthful prison inmates, it preserves a connection to the outside world. Moreover, the reality is that reading gives young inmates a positive way to spend their time, as opposed to the many negative ways to spend their time that are common in prison facilities. And creating an opportunity for young people to select books is just the sort of empowerment that could help lead to better choices on the outside. Most of us have been touched by a book at some point in our lives. Incarcerated youth should be allowed to experience the self-discovery and engagement that comes from connecting with a moving book.
Liberation Library is being started by Loevy & Loevy staff member Lauren Lebata and by Eva Nagao, Managing Director of the Exoneration Project. The Library accepts book donations and publishes a wish list of books that are of particular interest. Liberation Library also relies on cash donations from individuals, through its crowdrise page, to cover the costs of purchasing, packing, and shipping books to its youth partners. The Library is also hosting its inaugural fundraiser on Wednesday, June 10, at Deuces in Chicago. In urging support for the Library, Ms. Nagao reminds us, “We tend to emphasize the utilitarian value of reading when arguing for access to educational materials for youth. Pairing a young person with a good book is the gateway to a love of learning, and a world of imaginings far beyond the walls, cities, and everyday lives we lead.”