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Giving Prisoners the Gift of Reading

By Pamela Sosnowski

For those who must spend part or all of their lives in incarceration, the simple pleasure of reading a good book can be a blessing. Since 1972, Quincy's Prison Book Program (PBP) has been affording this privilege to prisoners by organizing and distributing reading material to jails across the country.

Some may wonder why people who have been found guilty of committing crimes should be allowed to read, but PBP believes that reading may help them avoid returning to a life of crime after their sentence is completed. At its most basic level, reading helps improves one's vocabulary and literacy skills, but its benefits go beyond that for those behind bars. Says Marlene Cook, a PBP volunteer, "Books help in so many ways. You can read about the experiences of others, which builds empathy. You can upgrade a skill. Or you can just escape the oppressive environment of prison by escaping into a Harry Potter novel."

Since most prisons cannot accept shipped books from a prisoner's family and friends, the PBP serves an important need to the prison community. The PBP's donated books come from libraries, bookstores, and individual contributions. Drop offs or donations may be made directly at their Quincy, MA office.

Among the types of donated books that the PBP accepts are fictional best-sellers and poetry collections, as well as non-fiction books covering art, computer science, health, exercise, foreign language study, social sciences, and more. According to Cook, dictionaries are a popular request among prison populations because they aid with learning to read. The program also accepts thesauruses, single volume encyclopedias, and GED study guides. The PBP ensures that any donated material is relatively current and still in good condition. A list of acceptable reading material is outlined on their website. The organization also accepts monetary contributions and supplies that help with shipping books.

Prisoners have the option of requesting a title, provided that it fits within the PBP's guidelines. The organization asks readers for voluntary handwritten feedback on donated titles, which most of the time also contain heartfelt thanks. One prisoner's note reads, "The novel helped me smile and laugh as I went on an adventure." Those who have been positively affected by donated reading material often write letters, essays, and poems to the PBP expressing gratitude for their gifts.

When Cook first began volunteering with the PBP, she initially viewed its mission as a "nice thing for prisoners." Now she realizes that the benefits the PBP provides have long-lasting effects. "Artistic expression is important for all human beings; prisoners are no different," she says. "Many people arrive in prison with horrible life experiences like neglectful and abusive childhood experiences. Being able to express or articulate those and the feelings you have today are an important part of healing."

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