Letters Talk: Learning Behind Bars

Snapshots of prisoner education

“Thank you for the years that you have provided me with books [and] for working so hard to reach us prisoners with an alternative solution—education—to help make our futures more promising.”  —C.C., incarcerated in MD

Each month, Books Through Bars receives 600-800 letters from prisoners asking for books. The majority include requests for educational materials. Many prisoners want books about African-American, Native American, and Latino/a history. Nearly 25% ask for dictionaries.  They also ask for books on improving reading, math and writing skills, using computers, and learning skilled trades like carpentry. Many need books that will help them get their GED.

These patterns reveal a larger truth about mass incarceration in the U.S.: many prisoners are poor people of color denied access to quality educational and employment opportunities.

The letters also reveal the diversity of interests and skills present within the imprisoned population. New volunteers are sometimes surprised to read requests for advanced calculus, classic literature, physiology, philosophy. Many volunteers are struck by the similarity of their interests to those of the prisoner whose book request they are filling.

Yet while the letters help us understand the ways in which incarceration disproportionately affects poor communities of color and dispel stereotypes of prisoners, they are also a testament to the eagerness of many prisoners to spend their time behind bars constructively.

A desire to learn, thwarted

Hundreds of prisoners have sent us detailed descriptions of the educational opportunities at their facilities. Below is just a small selection of the issues they face when trying to access resources and make positive changes in their lives.


Many note the poor quality (or complete lack) of libraries at their facilities. In prisons where libraries do exist, multiple barriers keep people from using them: structural damage, conflicting work schedules, decreasing budgets, limited hours, wait lists. Libraries are also often small, out-of-date, and mostly comprised of mass-market fiction instead of educational books.

Educational Programs

Others tell us about limited access to or a complete lack of educational programs, including GED prep and vocational training. Frequently their state’s budget for educational programming has decreased and courses have been eliminated—even though prisoner education has been shown to reduce recidivism.

Adult Basic Education and GED Programs

Prisoners sometimes report that GED (high school equivalency) programs have been eliminated at their prison. However, they more commonly describe significant barriers to enrolling in such programs. Some are barred because they are in solitary confinement. Others face restrictive enrollment criteria. (For example, those who will be released soon are given priority over those with longer sentences.) Even where this is not the case, the waiting list may be literally years-long. 5 ½ years is the longest we’ve heard of so far!

College Classes

Through the mid-1990′s, prisoners were eligible for higher education financial aid through federal Pell Grants. But in 1994, due to political pressure, Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners was repealed. Prisoners have since lost almost all access to college programming.

There are still small numbers of prisoners who are able to participate in college courses. Special free programs, like Temple University’s Inside Out project, are offered at a small number of prisons to a select few prisoners. However, for most prisoners the only option is distance education, which requires the economic means to pay for such courses.

Restricted access

We receive many letters from prisoners housed in solitary confinement. They cannot access either libraries or educational programming of any kind. They are completely cut off.