The Case for Black With a Capital B



Books Behind Bars: Literacy and Incarceration in Massachusetts

Books Behind Bars: Literacy and Incarceration in Massachusetts
by Talia Whyte

Literacy advocates gathered at the Nonprofit Center in Chinatown Nov. 6 to collect donated books, which will be redistributed to prisons around the country. The issue of literacy is a concern to communities of color because the vast majority of U.S. prisoners are black or Latino, and most statistics show that 40 percent of prisoners are functionally illiterate.

However, this problem should be of concern to all Americans, as most prisoners eventually leave jail and come back to our communities. Most ex-offenders already have three strikes against them upon leaving prison - being a person of color, having a criminal record and lacking basic literacy skills. These strikes create an invisible barrier and prevent them from moving forward on a positive, law-abiding path, thus making many of them recommit crimes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, approximately two-thirds of state convicts are re-arrested for a violent, property or drug related offenses within three years of their release. Most prison systems don’t have - or require - proper re-entry training for soon-to-be-released prisoners, which is also a big problem.

Through my company, I have done basic computer literacy trainings which have included ex-offenders as students. Many of the ex-offenders had been in prison long before the Internet became popular and accessible to the general public. In many classes I would show students common procedures like setting up an email address and doing a Google search. It’s basically a necessity to have Internet skills to do almost anything these days like finding a job, housing or even supermarket coupons. Unfortunately, it was difficult to do these trainings with some ex-offenders because they didn’t have the basic reading skills to understand what was written on a computer screen.

As a society, we really have to rethink how to support ex-offenders. Ex-offenders who honestly want to become productive citizens in society can’t do this if non-offenders don’t provide them the skills necessary to make this a reality.