A few books may help female inmates stay out of prison

The San Francisco Gate recently published a story on the deplorable state of the prison library at the Central California Women's Facility:
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a three-judge federal court order last month requiring California to reduce its prison population in two years. Each year, it costs taxpayers about $48,000 to keep a woman incarcerated in the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. And what do we get for our investment? Not rehabilitation. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 50 percent of women inmates released return to prison.

We're missing an opportunity to help women to stay out of prison. Educating prisoners is one of the least expensive ways to reduce the likelihood that people will return. A 2005 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy cites numerous studies showing how education reduces recidivism.

In May last year, I visited CCWF with other members of the Women's Foundation of California and the Women Donors Network. We met with incarcerated mothers -- women who were in prison for just a short time, and women who were there for life.We talked to them about their families, the conditions inside the prison, their frustrations and hopes. Most acknowledged responsibility for the mistakes and poor choices that led to their convictions. At the same time, they expressed great hopes for the future, especially their children and families. These women want to be reunited with their kids and break out of the cycle of crime, drugs, and violence that brought them to prison.

We also learned about the woefully under-stocked prison library and subsequently asked the librarian for more information. The cost for what they need is pitiful: A dictionary would cost just $20, an atlas $15. Most shockingly, an up-to-date copy of the California Penal Code is just $140 -- and it's something the prison is legally required to provide. It turns out that $1,500 would close the funding gap -- that's less than 50 cents for each incarcerated woman. The prison library should be properly funded to support the women -- many of whom have never finished high school -- as they seek the remedial education and support they need.

Perhaps it's hard to feel sympathy for women who are now in prison because of their own mistakes. But we all have a vested interest in helping incarcerated women who truly want to get an education and improve their lives. So in addition to solving our tremendous multibillion dollar budget crunch, this Supreme Court ruling gives us added incentive for helping incarcerated women to gain the tools they need to stay out of prison.

Whether or not these mothers stay in jail, they will be influencing the next generation. The more that they learn to value education and see possibilities for themselves, the greater the chance they will be able to break the cycle of incarceration -- not just for themselves, but for generations to come.

A group of women on the outside has decided to pick up the tab for these books. Next year, let's hope that the state corrections department gets its priorities straightened out, and invests more of the taxpayers' dollars in programs and resources that will help break the cycle of expensive, repeated incarceration.

We don't have to wait for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to realize that they need to invest in education programs. If we do, we'll be waiting a good long time. People in California can contact the prison librarian and find out how they can organize book drives to help fill the need for quality and educational reading material. People on college campuses can collect books after each semester and arrange for them to be donated.

For readers who have books that they really will never read again, they can donate them to the Prison Literature Project in San Francisco or to any of the numerous groups that sends books to people in prison. (Note: While the Prison Literature Project sends books to people of all genders, the Women's Prison Book Project and the Chicago Books to Women Prisoners sends books specifically to women and transgender people in prison.) A map and list of the various groups across the country that send books to people in prison can be found .

We should also remember that, while helping women (and everyone else) attain an education while in prison is important, we should also be asking ourselves why so many people can't obtain a meaningful education on the outside enabling them to have opportunities that would help them avoid prison in the first place. Prison shouldn't be the educational depot of the poor and marginalized of our society.

Thanks for Melissa of Radical Reference for calling my attention to this article!