By Timothy Dillon
Photo courtesy of the Maryland Humanities Council.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and of that imprisoned population a little over 22 percent have completed high school. Another estimated 23 percent have completed a GED. In such an undereducated population, one might assume that prison libraries are under used or otherwise unneeded, but that would be a terrible assumption to make. With an abundance of time and no way to free their bodies, prisoners turn inward to reflect on life and find liberty in reading.
In prison, only the mind can grant you freedom. This is the core belief of Professor Drew Leder, Loyola University Philosophy professor and author, whose work, The Soul Knows No Bars, focuses on his work with inmates teaching philosophy and trying to help lifers find inner peace. Leder and his student teachers work out of Jessup Correctional Institute south of Baltimore in cooperation with the prison’s library program.
Beyond the spools of treacherous razor wire, past several fences, and beyond several reinforced steel doors, you come up to a sight that almost seems out of place. A large painted mural depicting green fields, rainbows, and smiling faces sits opposite the windowless library.
It is a scene reminiscent of a middle school library, if you could only look past the faded blue DOC shirts and black clad prison guards. There are stacks of books and almost too many magazines to count. Students sit shoulder to shoulder with inmates and within minutes, the chatter overtakes the silence and soon laughter ensues, all related to the readings. Recently Leder has turned to Eckhart Tolle, though he has covered philosophers such as Foucault, Aristotle, and Socrates.
Arlando “Tray” Jones III, has been incarcerated since he was 17-years-old, serving a life sentence for a double homicide. A student of Leder’s in Jessup, Tray is nothing like the teenage drug dealer and triggerman that was arrested all those years ago. Now in his mid-forties, Tray has turned himself around, receiving a degree in applied psychology, writing a memoir of his experiences in the Baltimore drug scene, and cultivated a serious affection for Nietzsche, all while in prison.
His book, Eager Street: A life on the Corner and Behind Bars, paints a vivid and raw picture of what he went through in his early years that lead him to his eventual incarceration. Tray proves that the libraries inside do not just give them something to read, but it can also give the inmates the means to write. Leder and Tray are, respectively, two titans of philosophy of the Jessup prison library.
Meanwhile further north around New York City, there are no prisons but there are jails and not a one of them has an on-site library. This is where the New York Public Library Offices of Correction’s comes in, with everything from Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, — even to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Christian Reese is a young poet who recently relocated to Queens. After finding a job writing for a local website, Reese found himself with extra time on his hands between his job and his personal work and stumbled upon an opportunity to volunteer at Rikers Island, under the guidance of Supervising Librarian, Nicholas Higgins.
“In the New York area there are no real prisons, we have jails, and none of them have permanent libraries. I took it up on a whim. Something to take up my time at first,” Reese tells BTR. However, that all changed shortly after. His volunteer work has expanded from just visiting the jail to hand out books, to responding to prisoners correspondence and doing research for them. What began as a way to pass the time has turned into a calling.
“I am primarily a writer so I have been looking into clinical social work but with my own spin. I want to work with prisoners to write poetry and fiction, something that can get them outside of their current circumstances,” Reese says.
This is idea of helping inmates transcend their circumstances through art and writing isn’t exactly new, but it’s also not something volunteers are lining up to do — not that there would be the facilities for it either.
“I basically work out of a closet,” laughs Reese. “It’s a transitory prison library system where I go in maybe a three, four, or five times a month to work with the inmates and help them get something to help them.”
During Reese’s time volunteering, he has received requests to research everything from ways to improve prisoner resumes after their time served to ways of launching their own porn production company. While some of the requests can certainly turn heads, Reese is not deterred or even phased.
“The most thought provoking requests are often the most simple. Some of the inmates are almost tentative about it,” he says. “I’m there because I want to put a book in the guys hands, and yet its almost like they’re afraid to ask.”
Reese will continue to work with Rikers and other inmates in an effort to bring more relief to an often forgotten and discarded population. Many believe that prisons are a place to keep unsavory people away but they would be mistaken. Despite the staggering statistics of the many inmates who abandoned their own education, these libraries and their volunteers are an essential part of rehabilitation and penance. A book offers a lot more than just escapism. For many, they offer a fresh page to start on.