In November, when Council member Tommy Wells chaired a hearing on the high rate of suicides and suicide attempts at the D.C. jail, various solutions were proposed. Many focused on removing objects from cells, but Sam Jewler testified that some should be added: books.
“One effect of incarceration is that you’re kind of hidden away from society,” he said recently. “If you’re better able to read and write, I think you’re better able to communicate with the outside world, and better able to stay out of trouble inside.”
Jewler’s day job is at Congress Watch, a Capitol Hill-based division of Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader. He also volunteers with the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which works with juveniles, mostly 16- and 17-year-olds, who have been incarcerated as adults at the D.C. jail.
“We have seen firsthand how books change lives,” said Free Minds Executive Director Tara Libert. “Books are a complement to a mental health strategy.”
Her group, she noted, does not aid inmates who are over 18. “We want everyone at the jail to have that same benefit.”
As a native Washingtonian, Jewler had long observed that blacks and whites are treated differently by the police, courts and prisons. “I read ‘The New Jim Crow’ a few years ago,” he said, referring to Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book about the high levels of African American imprisonment in the United States. “And I really became convinced that the criminal justice system is a deeply unjust and racist system.”
That perception was underscored for him by a 2013 Washington Lawyers Committee report on racial disparities in local arrests. The paper revealed that more than 80 percent of the people arrested by D.C. police from 2009 through 2011 were African Americans, although they constituted only about 48 percent of the adult population.
Jewler’s response was to found the D.C. Jail Library Coalition and begin interviewing prison librarians and ex-convicts. (Free Minds terms the latter “returning citizens.”)
“Free Minds was saying, ‘We should also be talking about quality of life. There’s no library at the jail, and that’s kind of an egregious thing,’ ” Jewler said. “They see every day the way reading rehabilitates people who are incarcerated.”
Asking to add a library to the jail, he recalled, seemed “a winnable campaign. It’s a very sensible thing that would help a lot of people. It’s low cost, high reward.”
“Looking at how other jail libraries operate, taking bits and pieces from each one, we were able to put together a proposal to the mayor’s office and the Department of Corrections.”
Because of space and security concerns, a library room will not be added to the D.C. jail anytime soon. But the facility will be getting book carts, which are scheduled to be in operation by Oct. 1. The carts will be a collaboration of the Department of Corrections and the D.C. Public Library.
“The good thing about book carts is that you don’t have to transfer inmates from place to place within the facility,” Jewler said. “You can just bring the book cart to them.”
Jewler “and all the activists did a really great job spreading the word. We’re just thrilled that it’s happening,” Libert said.
She also credited the D.C. Public Library’s new executive director, Richard Reyes-Gavilan. “We got really lucky that we have a new D.C. Public Library director who has experience with jail libraries.”
“The most exciting thing,” Libert added, “is that there will be money to purchase books specifically tailored to the interests and needs of the jail population. We have found that to be one of the many keys to our success. In encouraging non-readers to become readers, you have to have a wide range of books that meet their interests and engage them.”
Although most D.C. jail inmates are older than the Free Minds participants, Libert expects they’ll be attracted to the same kind of books: ones “with characters they can relate to, characters that are overcoming obstacles and have gone on an inner journey of transformation.”
The book cart program itself may experience such a journey. “From what I’ve heard from other jail librarians, it’s a constant work in progress,” Jewler said. “Negotiating that relationship between two very different institutions. But I’m excited to see what they have running on Oct. 1.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.