‘Read Your Way Out’: How reading can reduce a prison sentence

As we mark World Book Day, Lisa Krolak shares her experiences of initiatives that help inmates to reduce their prison sentence by reading books and using library services.

© BJMP. ‘People deprived of liberty’ (PDLs) using their library in Manila City Jail, Philippines

Creating reading policies for prisoners to earn time allowances through reading

All over the world, the prison population includes a high proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities, often with a lower educational level than the rest of their community and struggling with reading and writing. Prisoners have a right to access education, including the use of prison library services, but this is frequently overlooked or disregarded. Moreover, it can be assumed that many prisoners were not active readers before entering prison. So how can we offer an attractive incentive to prisoners to start reading, despite their literacy struggles and the attitudes towards reading and education that they might have?

Let us have a closer look at the Philippines, where there are more than 131,311 prisoners, or ‘people deprived of liberty’ (PDL), as they are locally called. There are seven national prisons and 477 jails, where inmates await their trial and sentencing for many years, resulting in average jail congestion rates of 370% (BJMP Sept 2022). A survey conducted by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in June 2022 showed that only 32% of jails had books available for PDLs to read. Only a few of these jails had books organized into some kind of jail library. Due to the lack of reading materials and functioning prison libraries, combined with the extreme overcrowding, the local United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC Philippines) has initiated several activities aiming to alleviate the situation in the country’s heavily congested jails.

I attended the launch of one of these initiatives in Manila in March 2023. It is entitled ‘Read Your Way Out: Advancing Prison Reform through Libraries for Lifelong Learning in Places of Detention’. It supports the creation and piloting of 13 new jail libraries in the Philippines and provision of attractive and relevant books and equipment, with the overall aim of providing inmates with learning opportunities for personal development, well-being, and, ultimately, rehabilitation. In addition, the programme aims to incorporate reading and library-related activities as one of the options for prisoners to earn what is termed ‘Time Allowance for Study, Teaching and Mentoring’ (TASTM), which reduces the duration of their sentence and facilitates decongestion through early release. For every 60 hours of activity involving study, teaching or mentoring, inmates earn a deduction of 15 days from their sentence. During the launch, the promise was given that every new jail will get a library space, including equipment and a library collection.

The project is jointly run by the Criminal Justice Team of UNODC Philippines, BJMP and the National Library of the Philippines. It certainly is a clever move to involve different stakeholders from the beginning to ensure their commitment. For example, the National Library will offer professional guidance, training and capacity building, pass on their knowledge down to local public libraries and will assist in convincing the local government to provide financial support.

Tackling prison overcrowding in the country would require a deeper examination and, possibly, a review of national prison laws and regulations. But this is beyond the scope of this initiative that aims at finding practical solutions that can produce results in the short term, with sustainable effects on rehabilitation and lifelong learning.

Reading for pleasure, purpose and rehabilitation

Beyond reducing the amount of time Philippine prisoners need to spend in jail, reading in prison allows prisoners to spend their time productively in a calming way, supporting social cohesion. It helps to improve their knowledge, skills and educational levels, leading to greater opportunities to find employment after release.

Reading is a powerful transformative tool for personal development in the prison environment. As mentioned in UIL publication Books beyond bars, ‘Increased self-knowledge and self-understanding can help inmates to question and even change values, beliefs and behaviours. Reading and writing initiatives can benefit individuals of any age by increasing their self-esteem, their self-awareness and their ability to discuss thoughts and feelings, to tolerate different points of views and to see alternative solutions. This, in turn, improves coping and problem-solving abilities and thus represents a powerful transformative tool for personal development in the prison environment’ (p. 39).

All these ideas, and many more, are reflected when asking prisoners about their opinion of reading. The following quotes are from a soon-to-be-released documentary from Brazil called Liberta! Inmates say, for example, that reading is, for them, a form of escapism as expressed in ‘Here you live in a grey place, but reading can become the colour of your life’; ‘You can escape the environment you are in’; or ‘Literature can take you places’. Reading helps to form empathy: ‘It helps you to identify with other people, to envisage other worlds, other ideas, other ways of thinking and acting’ and ‘It benefits our self-knowledge’.

It is a way of freedom and autonomy in a closed environment: ‘Books can set you free’ or ‘Reading gives me mental freedom’. ‘The only thing that helps us to break free from being locked in is reading’ and ‘You can escape the environment you are in’. Reading helps to understand, interpret, rethink and reflect the world as you are ‘reading the world’. It also helps to critically rethink the system as ‘Reading wakes you up, brings you energy, vision, class, as well as political, racial and social awareness’

Similar examples from Brazil and France

Similar experiences are being made in other parts of the world. For example, in 2012 Brazil implemented a law that enables prisoners to reduce their sentence by reading books. It is referred to as remission (of prison sentences) through reading. The programme is not just about reading, but has a special focus on discussing, understanding and analysing what has been read. A commission selects the titles that can be read. The prisoner can choose a title, has 30 days to read it and then discusses it in a group. He or she then needs to write a review of the book to demonstrate that he or she understands the content and can reflect on it. This review is handed over to the commission and once accepted the prisoner is granted four days of remission. As up to 12 reviews can be handed in each year, the prisoner can reduce his or her prison sentence by a maximum of 48 days per year. ‘The strategy is part of a wider pedagogical process aimed a resocialising prisoners and helping them to develop into critical and informed readers while engendering greater autonomy and independence to utilize in the outside world’ (Torres da Silva, quoted in Books beyond bars, pp. 19–20).

A recent news article had a closer look at the French charity ‘Lire Pour Sortir’ (Read to Get Out), which is using reading as a way to help prisoners to express and understand themselves. The programme also tackles the issue of overcrowding in France, which stands at 20% over capacity, but has a strong focus on reading as a means to learn to better express yourself. The founder of the charity, lawyer Alexandre Duval-Stalla, states that lack of vocabulary is the number one determining factor in social inequality. He goes on to say that the more words you have, the better your chance of speaking to judges, finding a job after release and inserting yourself back into life. ‘All this aggression and impulsiveness we find with criminals comes from being unable to express themselves.’

French prisons are required to have libraries, but not librarians. Mediators are needed, however, to encourage reading, to help those who struggle with reading and writing and to organize literacy activities and cultural programmes. These can be book clubs, creative writing workshops, author readings, etc. There is also the benefit of bibliotherapy, as books help perform the work that would ideally be done by psychologists if the resources existed, says Duval-Stalla. ‘Criminals rarely put themselves in another person’s shoes. Books allow them to live the stories of other people, and that’s very important. Words give you perspective and the tools for reflection.’ ‘Duval-Stalla points out ‘We know what keeps people out of prison – a job, housing, a family … But also the capacity to express and understand yourself – and that requires words.’

The way forward

Prison libraries and access to reading materials offer crucial learning support to prisoners and are key to ensuring and expanding prisoners’ right to education. Neglecting this human right is a huge missed opportunity. It means that many prisoners fail to learn the essential skills that will help them to resettle, get work and make a success of their lives when they are released.

Time in prison is an opportunity to address this issue and the chance of getting time allowances for reducing a prison sentence through reading is a perfect incentive, particularly for those who struggle with reading and writing and who need an extra nudge for continuing their lifelong learning journey. It can be assumed that many prisoners did not read before entering prison. One prisoner in the previously mentioned Brazilian documentary states: ‘I never liked reading’, but ‘I got drawn into reading in prison and now it is a daily practice’.

This is particularly important in today´s digital era, where time in prison can become an opportunity (albeit forced) to appreciate the ‘deeper’ reading of printed materials instead of the quick scanning of mobile (social media) texts. Mobile phones and internet access are forbidden in most prisons for security reasons. Particularly for young prisoners this is a huge challenge as they have to find other means of spending time.

At UIL, we will continue to study the experiences of the Philippines with their ‘Read Your Way Out’ project, and share international experiences to help countries learn from each other.

Lisa Krolak is the UIL Library’s Chief Librarian. This blog post is based on her personal experience while attending the launching event of the ‘Read Your Way Out’ project in the Philippines. It is also based on collecting experiences when coordinating a global network of prison libraries and various research projects, including the UIL publication, Books beyond bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries.

One thought on “‘Read Your Way Out’: How reading can reduce a prison sentence

  1. thank you sio much, Lisa.

    i have enjoyed reading about the power and value of practiced literacy – reading – in prisons. I think we need a real emprical study in the different contexts to inform policy and practice recommendations around the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *