Inmate literacy lessens reincarceration, group says

By Jessica Brown, @BrownJessicaJ

Fifty-one percent of Illinois inmates have been previously incarcerated.

Barbara Kessell, a founder of a volunteer organization known as 3R’s, or Reading Reduces Recidivism, said inmates reoffend because of the absence of literacy and education programs.

Recidivism refers to the incarceration of inmates who commit new crimes after release. This rate, as well as prison population in general, is particularly high in Illinois.


“The prison system is like 151 percent full,” Kessell said. “It’s way overcrowded.”

Kessell, a retired teacher, said she had always placed a major emphasis on reading while teaching her students. Because of her background in education, when she heard of a volunteer program called Books to Prisoners in 2004, she was interested immediately.

Books to Prisoners is the organization 3R’s grew out of. Members of Books to Prisoners mail books to inmates in Illinois who write to the organization and ask for a type of book or a particular author. The members get these books from local donations.

The idea of dealing with prison libraries directly soon came about within the organization.

While attempting to contact the state prisons’ libraries, Kessell became aware of the inadequacies of prison libraries.

“About nine prisons had no library because they had no librarian,” she said. “We can’t give them books if they don’t have a librarian.”

This was not the only problem.


“We thought the libraries were filled with books,” Kessell said. “We discovered in talking to librarians that the budget for libraries was cut at the state level in 2002. From that point on, they have no money in the budget to buy books.”

In fact, a vast majority of the books in the prison libraries were not provided by the state but were leftovers from Books to Prisoners.

Books sent to prisoners cannot always be kept in the prisoners’ cells, Kessell said. Inmates are not permitted to have many belongings within the cells because of space constraints. Oftentimes, cells that were meant for one person have two people living inside of them, she said.

Because of this, a prisoner will sometimes donate his or her read books to the prison library to acquire others.

“We didn’t know they had no books, no money to buy books and they got their books from us,” Kessell said. “That was when we decided we needed to fill this need.”

So in 2010, the first chapter of Reading Reduces Recidivism was born in Oak Park.

The organization focuses on state prisons rather than federal. There are five federal prisons and 26 state prisons in Illinois.

Since its beginning, 3R’s has established chapters in Macomb, Savannah, Crystal Lake, Champaign-Urbana and Carbondale.

Carbondale, one of the larger chapters, caters to Big Muddy River Correctional Center, Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Shawnee Correctional Center, Vandalia Correctional Center, Vienna Correctional Center and the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg.

“The prison-industrial complex of the whole incarceration system in our nation is incredibly cruel,” said Sarah Lewison, co-founder of the Carbondale chapter and an SIU professor in the Radio, Television and Digital Media department. “It doesn’t actually serve the needs of all the people. I am against incarceration, and this is a small act of compassion.”

M.J. Smerken, another co-founder, said the chapter started out relatively small, but as word spread, it began to grow within the community.

The Carbondale Public Library, First Christian Church and the Sallie Logan Public Library in Murphysboro are now primary donors, recieving their books from leftover book sales and donations.

Reading Reduces Recidivism reached out to Maurine Pyle, a member of a local Quaker group with a strong interest in prison reform.

Pyle and Diane Brawley-Sussman, librarian of the Carbondale Public Library, played a major role in revamping of the organization’s efficiency.

Pyle asked the pastor of First Christian Church, Katherine Graves, for help. Graves offered a storage space for the books located next to the Carbondale Public Library, which helped widen the variety of books 3R’s can provide to prisons.

Brawley-Sussman contacted and gained rapport with prison librarians around the area.

Instead of the organization sending books to prisons with no indication of what they would need, the prison librarians now come pick out their own books based on their needs and the prisoner’s requests.

The screening process was previously an issue because it had fundamental restrictions across the board, such as no spiral bindings, CDs, or topics dealing with weaponry. Technicalities vary from prison to prison.

Kessel said the group is determined to keep up with the need for books and educational tools.

“It’s very foolish to not educate people,” Pyle said. “We should do everything possible to help a person improve their condition in life.”

Brawley-Sussman said there is evidence that prison education programs greatly reduce recidivism.

“When people have a chance to educate themselves, they’re going to adapt to reentering society much more easily,” she said. “They’re going to be much less likely to end up back into the prison system.”

Education during incarceration is not only beneficial to the inmates, she said.

 “I know [the state’s] budgets are very tight, and it costs a lot of money to keep people in prison, but it’s actually much more affordable to keep people out of prison,” Brawley-Sussman said. “That’s why education programs should be a high-funding priority.”

Those interested in volunteering or donating gently used books may contact the Carbondale Public Library located at 405 W. Main St., or First Christian Church located at 306 W. Monroe St.

Jessica Brown can be reached at [email protected].