Program Disparity


Access to Books in Illinois Prisons

Amy Galanter

           “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”  -Malcom X

A 1992 adult literacy survey, by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that the prison population is less educated, and therefore possesses lower literacy levels than the general population.  Illiteracy perpetuates crime and keeps our prisons running because uneducated people are economically and socially marginalized. Professor Isaac Ehrlich of State University of New York concluded after conducting extensive research on crime and education that these two factors are most definitely connected-“It is essentially the inequalities in the distribution of schooling and training, not their mean levels that appear to be strongly related to the incidence of many crimes.” Education is a tool that improves quality of life and creates new solutions to old problems. Therefore, prison libraries present an enormous opportunity to improve education, reduce crime and recidivism rates, and decrease criminal justice spending.

Malcolm X showed that education and language give people power and the ability to improve their situation. In his autobiography, he described his anger towards society and people. It was in writing to his sister and friends that he realized he must be articulate in order to get his point across. He read and copied the entire dictionary, and from then on began reading voraciously.

I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. If I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk…Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life. (Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965).

Malcolm X soon became one of the most articulate and motivating speakers of the 20th century. Quite literally, he says that books and language are what liberated him.


Under law, every prison should have a library and a law library, and two Supreme Court cases directly address the issues of law libraries in prisons. The 1977 decision delivered by Justice Thurgood Marshall in Bounds v. Smith stated that the constitutional right of prisoners includes “meaningful, adequate, and effective access to the courts.” Marshall detailed how law libraries and other legal assistance are essential to frame adequate legal documents and emphasized the importance of legal research when defending oneself in court. A judge might overlook important facts and aspects of the defense if it is well articulated and clearly explained. Therefore, law libraries, legal assistance, and jailhouse lawyers are necessary for proper research in defense.

Nineteen years later, Justice Antonin Scalia delivered a decision in Casey v. Lewis which effectively ignored and voided the prior Bounds v. Smith decision. Scalia said “Several statements in Bounds went beyond the right of access recognized…These elaborations upon the right of access to the courts have no antecedent in pre-Bounds cases, and we now disclaim them.” Scalia also said that the prior demands of the Bounds v. Smith decision would require a “permanent provision of counsel,” which is not stated in the constitution. No prison had ever created such a provision, and this certainly was not the intent of Marshall in the Bounds v. Smith decision. A well funded, adequate library with legal assistance, including paralegals and jail house lawyers would definitely assist prisoners in their quest to have their claims heard. Such resources other than books open opportunities for those with differing literacy levels, as reading legal terminology is extremely complex and wordy. It is still mandatory for prisons to have a law library, but since the most recent Supreme Court decision does not provide much support for prison law libraries, it is up to each individual prison to allocate funding for law library spending.

Madeline Ward, former prisoner and library worker at Dwight Correctional Center, mainly criticizes the accessibility of both the law library and the regular library. Although more books and a more diverse selection would better the library, she said that the books need to be processed more efficiently, “The processing system is done by hand and takes at least 15 minutes per book.” She found this inefficient for workers and difficult for inmates to find the books that they want to read. Ward expressed that it would be very helpful to receive a donation of a barcode reader from a college library, or any library, to assist in processing. Ward emphasized that it is not only books, but also resources of how to use them that is important. Ward reiterates Thurgood Marshall’s decision. “Meaningful, adequate, and effective access to the courts” does not simply mean a pile of books.

Although each prison is required by law to have a law library and a regular library, there is no real system or mandatory regulation for regular prison libraries in Illinois. Some prisons have librarians (full time, part-time, traveling librarians who service many prisons, or inmates who work at the library). The facility and up keep of each library varies by prison. At Dwight, the library (law and regular are in the same room) is located in Jane Addams Hall and has recently been closed due to roof leaks. The law library takes up about 1/3 of the space. Regarding the materials of the library, Madeline Ward states that “the books tend to be terribly religious in nature and [the library] lacks ethnic books: books written by Blacks, Hispanics, and books in other languages.” There is a full time, union-employed librarian and two paralegals that will help the prisoners in the law library. Access is limited to two and a half days per week (day access) and a pass given by the librarian is needed to use it.

At Stateville, the law library and the regular library are also located in the same room. Bill Ryan, coordinator of Stateville Speaks says there are often waiting lists for books. In addition, “The space is limited in the library…Stateville might have over 2,000 prisoners, but only about thirty one time can be in the library.” At Tamms, where inmates are in permanent solitary confinement, books are very limited. There is no current librarian, but a cart of books is supposed to circulate through the cells and to get books, prisoners must fill out specific request forms. Prisoners can also visit the “satellite law library” in solitude. Prisoners at Tamms complain that the law library is woefully inadequate and that the regular books are all children’s books. Funding was cut by the IDOC in the 1990s for all libraries, excluding law libraries, so the selection is mainly limited to donations. Before 1990, an inter-library loan system allowed access to Illinois libraries, but this system was cut along with library funding. There is no Internet access for prisoner use at any Illinois prison.

Because of this lack of support, there are outside organizations that work to provide reading material to prisoners. A nationwide group Books To Prisoners mails books to prisoners all over the country. There is an Illinois division located in Urbana and two smaller book projects that work outside of Chicago. The Urbana group serves 24 state prisons and to date, this coalition of volunteers has mailed out more than 28,000 books to 4,444 prisoners. Books To Prisoners volunteer Sarah Ross said, “[In prison] the library is a privilege, so if you ‘misbehave’ the prison can take access rights away. This is one of Books To Prisoners’ reasons for sending books directly to prisoners, not to the library.” The group matches book donations with prisoner’s requests.

Their mission statement declares, “By sending books to prisoners, we hope to foster a love of reading and encourage the pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement,” demonstrating the firm belief in the power of change through reading and literacy. The volunteers seek out any donations, but in particular high school textbooks, dictionaries of different languages, and Native American, African American, and Mexican literature.

Despite the clear necessity of prison libraries and education systems, the argument may arise, “Why fund education for inmates when our children aren’t getting an adequate education?” This is a valid concern, but we must realize that prisoner and children’s education are not mutually exclusive. Further, these prisoners are the children that did not receive an adequate education. These prisoner’s children are those children as well. Most solutions that we come up with are temporary fixes and cover ups. Volunteer organizations like Books To Prisoners are certainly admirable, but we need infrastructural changes in prison education, libraries, GED programs, and classes in order to move forward in reducing recidivism and improving the prison system.

UC Books to Prisoners
Box 515 Urbana IL 61803


Unjust Prison Standards Witnessed First Hand by College Students: Stateville Correctional Facility vs. Dwight Correctional Facility

Lydia C. Rowan

As a Loyola college student entering a maximum security facility like Stateville, I was hoping it would live up to its name. I anticipated to see mostly run-down cement and strong iron bar and to see inmates who were sad and more verbal than the inmates I encountered at Cook County Jail. I knew that most of the inmates at Stateville are serving long-term sentences so they would have very little to lose if they were to misbehave. I assumed to see much more staff and most especially big, strong, muscular men and women as strict, stern correctional officers.

Before visiting Dwight Women’s correctional facility I thought I would see mostly female correctional officers, especially since they have a rehabilitation center. Women can relate to other women better than any man could, thus this would explain the increase in rehabilitation amongst female inmates. I assumed the prison cells would be similar to Stateville and I thought I would see lots of “catty” angry female behavior like pushing and shoving between inmates, dirty looks and criticism towards my female classmates and I. Maybe even a prison riot?! I always thought of Dwight as a relatively small facility with not many inmates or officers.

None of these assumptions came close to my actual findings of either facility, Dwight most of all. In fact, the difference between the two facilities after an exclusive tour with my fellow classmates at both prisons turned out to be a ridiculous injustice.  

One thing I was glad to witness at Stateville was strong, muscle-bound men and very few women running tight security throughout the cell blocks and how well they regulate all inmate movement. The conditions were moderate at Stateville, but the inmates carried on with many complaints. They demanded the right to hold their children during visits and expressed their right to shower at least every OTHER day. They demanded respect from the correctional officers and the ability to move around more. The elderly inmates interviewed by myself and my classmates were serving life sentences and were part of the workforce program back when it got started. They appeared be extremely well-educated and spent much of their long years in prison building furniture or manufacturing bars of soap. Pay was close to nothing, but all inmates agreed that they loved the work because it was better than staying behind bars, and the pay went to their children and family members. These men expressed a sincere desire to rehabilitate themselves and I’m sure many had already. These men at Stateville who have been in prison for awhile, built up trust with correctional officers, and exhibit a genuine desire to rehabilitate themselves made it clear that the prison setting itself makes it almost impossible to rehabilate onself. The boredom alone, before they were granted jobs, could make someone go absolutely insane. Next to tour was Stateville’s infamous Roundhouse. There I was surrounded by hundreds of men screaming, chanting, and banging on bars just to get our attention. It was like being the center of attention at a zoo that houses men in iron cages, instead of dangerous animals.

On the contrary, there is nothing that could have prepared me for what I experienced at Dwight women’s correctional facility. Maximum security is not the only concept misinterpreted here, but the concept of prison is as well. Dwight seemed strictly as a rehabilitation center, not a prison. It is not that I don’t believe in rehabilitation, but the level of injustice between this maximum security male facility and maximum security female facility was overwhelming. At Stateville, an inmate regardless of their crime is incarcerated for 23 out of 24 hours of the day in the their cell. At Dwight, all female inmates are assigned a job upon entry and offered numerous recovery and rehabilitation programs. They even get to walk around the facility and are simply identified by a specific color on their badge. Educational programs are offered here such as GED classes and college courses. It takes months if not years for an inmate at Stateville to be enrolled in any kind of academic or work-related programs. A small number of inmates are housed at Dwight in comparison to Stateville, and yet walking the grounds of the prison seemed more like a college campus rather than a maximum security prison. One can find playgrounds, for when the inmates have their children visit, picnic tables for the inmates to come together to smoke cigarettes, a puppy pound where inmates spend the day training dogs to assist handicapped citizens, softball fields, basketball courts, etc. The inmates here have access outside their cell to smoke cigarettes, listen to music and socialize with other inmates. The women at Dwight are able to shower numerous times a day, whereas at Stateville typically showers take place once a week. “At Dwight, all they do is shower. Everyday, whenever they want,” a Dwight correctional officer informed me.

For so many years women have been struggling to achieve equal rights among men, but why is Dwight allowing more rights to inmates than Stateville? Equal rights should apply to all aspects of life, including the criminal justice system. How does the IDOC justify such unequal treatment for female and male inmates?  What I learned on this trip was that if a man commits a serious crime, he gets punished; if a female commits the same crime or even worse, she gets rehabilitated. Not only does she get rehabilitated, but an education as well in the process. The idea here, confirmed by a chief office of intergovernmental relations for Illinois Department of Corrections, is that corrections believe women can be rehabilitated more easily than men. Yet how can this be accurately proven when no new rehab programs have been introduced since 1870 in male facilities.

The whole concept of prison is to take time out away from society and allow for rehabilitation to take place by implemented programs and a strict, daily constructive schedule. Rehabilitation cannot happen when inmates are in a prison setting and locked up for 23 out of 24 hours each day experiencing sensory deprivation.  I encourage rehab programs to be active in prison but they need to be more so, or at least more prevalent, in male prison facilities as the recidivism rate is overwhelmingly high and growing. Only then, I believe will prisons serve a purpose for us all in society.



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