Literature empowerment takes the form of mobile libraries
Former prisoners are bringing literary empowerment to state prisons through a book accessibility project called “Freedom Libraries.”
The Freedom Libraries consist of 500 carefully selected books curated by “thousands of poets, novelists, philosophers, teachers, friends and various readers” that are available to incarcerated readers. So far, two of the portable shelving units have been installed, one in Louisiana and one in Massachusetts, according to The Associated Press.
The project is the brainchild of Reginald Dwayne Betts and his Freedom Reads nonprofit, as part of an effort to bring hundreds of books to prisons across America. The Freedom Reads organization addresses the challenges of time and accessibility in prison libraries.
“We have a chance to contribute to another chapter in the history of incarceration… one that is about mercy, hope, and creating opportunity for self-reinvention inside. I know firsthand how literature empowers us to confront what prison does to the spirit,” said Betts.
Betts knows firsthand because he received a nine-year sentence in Virginia as part of a plea deal for a carjacking charge at the age of 16, and spent part of his time in solitary confinement. He went on to graduate from Yale Law School after his release, and was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2021.
The goal is to install 200 “Freedom Libraries” by the end of 2023, and 200 more every two years thereafter to serve 1,000 prisons with access to hundreds of books, according reporting by the Washington Post.
The design of the mobile library units required specific constraints. For example, the cart is 44 inches tall so line of sight is not obstructed and curved to allow the carts to fit into different spaces. These designs were approved by corrections officials, said the Washington Post.
“This donation means so much to prisoners as it will help broaden their horizons through reading,” said Jimmy LeBlanc, Louisiana’s corrections secretary.
Troy Barnes built the hand-carved library shelves after learning carpentry in a Louisiana state penitentiary, reported the AP.
“In prison, you really don’t have beautiful things to see,” Barnes said. “To be able to wake up and see a natural, beautiful thing that was built by someone who left and returned to bring it there — it would give the guys hope.”