Events, Featured

Second Chance Month

By Hannah Herrlich, Emerging Technologies Librarian

A Second Chance

Beginning in 2017, the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs has recognized April as Second Chance Month. This month is dedicated to supporting the safe and successful reentry of millions of people returning from incarceration each year. Second Chance Month is a time to raise awareness and promote policies that help individuals with criminal records re-enter society and rebuild their lives. Individuals, organizations, and communities are encouraged to come together to support programs that help those with criminal records access employment, education, housing, and other opportunities that are often closed off to them because of their past convictions. Lastly, it is important to remember that Second Chance Month originated from the idea that everyone deserves a second chance, and that people who have made mistakes in the past should not be defined by those mistakes forever.

Prison Libraries

Incarcerated or not, it’s important that all individuals are presented with opportunities to read and freely access trustworthy information. That is why many prisons across the United States have a library. Nearly all federal correctional institutions have a prison library, and state prison libraries are controlled by each state’s own department of corrections.

Part of a library at infirmary unit at Dixon Correctional Center on July 25, 2014 in Dixon, IL. © Chicago Tribune-MCT

To expand upon the significance of making space for libraries in prisons, the American Library Association (ALA) has established the Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. In it, it states: “The American Library Association asserts a compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps and segregated units within any facility.”

Beyond the scope of American prison libraries, the United Nations acknowledges the right to prison education services and prison library services as a fundamental human right. The right for prisoners to have access to a prison library is reflected in the authoritative frameworks of the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also called the Nelson Mandela Rules. It contains 122 rules, one of which specifically calls for the establishment of prison libraries:

[Rule 64]: Every prison shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it.
Arthur Longworth leads a basic Spanish class for other inmates in the Monroe Correctional Complex library in Seattle, Washington. He learned Spanish and Mandarin while in prison. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/MCT)

There are many benefits of prison libraries. Providing access to educational materials is one of the most obvious benefits. Supporting prison education programs also bolsters inmates’ ability to develop skills and provides them with career development resources prior to reentry. Prison libraries also offer literacy activities such as reading circles, book clubs, and creative writing workshops- all of which encourage a reading culture and have a positive impact on inmates. Furthermore, prison libraries support social cohesion by providing a relaxed, safe environment and meeting place. In Books Beyond Bars: The Transformative Potential of Prison Libraries, Lisa Krolak, Chief Librarian at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, explores the prison library systems around the world. In the final chapter of the book, former prisoner Chris Wilson highlights the importance of the library during his imprisonment. Wilson underlines the fact that because he had a life sentence, the library became his reason for living; the urge to learn gave him a purpose.

Additionally, in Neil Gaiman’s 2013 lecture on why our future depends on libraries and reading, he mentions reading as a form of escapism for readers in difficult and unpleasant places- such as prisons. And indeed, in a 2020 research study, Jane Garner asserts that prison libraries enable inmates to remove themselves from other parts of the prison, and that the library gives them the opportunity to experience an escape from their physical surroundings, which are often stressful and difficult to endure. Garner concludes that experiencing escape through reading books from the library provides prisoners with an opportunity to imagine themselves elsewhere- either within the story they are reading, or outside of the prison.

Further Resources and Reading

For more information on Second Chance Month and adjacent topics of information, consider the resources below. And as always, if you have any additional questions about this topic or anything at all, do not hesitate to contact your Fordham University librarians.

National Reentry Resource Center– Funded and administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC) is the nation’s primary source of information and guidance in reentry. 

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention– OJJDP provides national leadership, coordination, and resources to prevent and respond to youth delinquency and victimization.

ALA Resource Guide: Prison Libraries

Fordham Libraries Research Guide: Human Rights, Criminal Justice

Connections– NYPL’s annual reentry resource guide, available to help people coming home after incarceration and serves as a guide on preparing to apply for jobs after release

Library Services in New York State’s Correctional Facilities 

A Proclamation on Second Chance Month, 2023

JSTOR Access in Prison Initiative

Prison Library Support Network

Print Friendly, PDF & Email