FOR THE last 12 years, I have offered many prison programmes, from CXC English and Caribbean history to certified barbering classes, PVC furniture making and decorative tiling. My prison debate teams proved successful too, but if forced to choose only one prison programme I could run in the future, it would be a reading programme for inmates to reduce jail time.
The idea came to me after reading an article on Reuters by Monica Machicao entitled Pages for Pardons? In Bolivia, Inmates Can Cut Jail Time by Reading featured success stories of such a reading programme in 47 Bolivian prisons. Machicao says the programme has reduced prison sentences by days or weeks. Clearly, it accomplishes far more than developing literacy skills in the 865 inmates who participate. The programme changes lives forever and helps to reduce crime.
Reading is the most important tool for developing empathy skills, which connect us to one another. If you have an understanding of how others feel and how your actions impact others – if you can put yourself in other’s shoes – then you are far less likely to commit crimes.
Reading develops critical thinking skills, which are important in making better decisions. It helps to develop the vocabulary necessary for a richer range of expression and fosters communication skills, which can mitigate anger, depression and frustration.
Many inmates don’t understand they have a wide range of feelings, and they don’t have people to discuss their feelings with.
Inmates often don’t know others share their feelings, but when they read about others who feel like them, they develop confidence and a better understanding of themselves. I experienced this transformation when my students in prison wrote a soap opera and expressed shock that their voices could convey any feelings other than anger.
The reading programme in Bolivia requires inmates to read eight books a year and pass four reading tests. Inmates have a lot of time to read, so I would consider 12 books a year – one for every month.
The tests could measure comprehension and analytical skills. Inmates would have a choice of books – fiction and nonfiction – especially matched to their interests, needs and reading levels. I visualise inmates writing analytical essays and preparing special, oral presentations for a committee of people outside of prison.
In other words, a reading programme could offer inmates a relevant academic experience that they never had when they attended school. Inmates who are illiterate could participate in the programme by being taught how to tell stories with special picture books without words while they learn literacy skills through programmes like ALTA that can help them to read picture books.
Their goal would be to read picture books to their children as we did with my library programme in Port of Spain Prison. Over 27 years of teaching in secondary school and 12 years in prisons, I have seen books transform lives in remarkable ways. Books help everyone to discover and explore new worlds. They help inmates feel more connected to a world that once marginalised or ostracised them.
Reading can help inmates to become better parents more aware of their children’s needs and feelings as they pass through different stages of their lives. If inmates can interest their children in reading, they can stop the cycle of violence and crime.
When I introduced a library in Port of Spain Prison, we developed a reading programme for inmates to read to their children. In their own way, inmates were participating in community service by supporting literacy in their homes and their communities.
A prison reading programme that reduces inmates’ sentences can be one of the most meaningful programmes we can introduce in prisons. It can be a vital part of restorative justice and help the public as much as it helps the inmates. The cost is minimum; the results can be monumental and easily measurable.
This pandemic has taught us that we need more prison programmes that raise inmates’ self-esteem and support inmates’ self-reliance, emotional intelligence and academic skills. This is a programme that is mostly dependent on inmates’ initiative and prisons’ collaboration with civilians and NGOs like Wishing for Wings, Let’s Read and Wishing for Wings, which I run.
Granted, not all prison commissioners want collaboration projects between prisons and civilians, but it is time that we become more progressive, more creative and more collaborative. Reading is a fundamental skill that inmates have a right to experience on a more meaningful level.