Humanizing Prisoners, One Book at a Time

There is a transformative power in good literature. A book can transport us to faraway places and introduce us to characters from different times and eras. It can rouse the emotions, challenge perceptions, and engage the mind in ways that few things can.

And, as a program at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth is demonstrating, it can also have a positive impact on recidivism rates.

The online journal Quartz recently published a story about efforts being made by Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) to provide books to men and women behind bars. The objective, according to English professor Bob Waxler, is to prove that literature can have a “humanizing effect” on prisoners, teaching them empathy, accountability, and how to restore personal dignity. “It’s the magic of reading,” he says.

The results of CLTL’s efforts seem to confirm Professor Waxler’s hypothesis. Repeated studies by the group have shown significantly lower recidivism rates for program participants compared to a standard control group.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation on prison education programs echoes CLTL’s findings, concluding that those prisoners participating in such programming “are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities.” The study also found that in addition to being effective in reducing recidivism, such education programs are cost efficient, with a 4 to 1 return on investment when compared to the costs of incarceration.

“Fictional tales influence real lives,” concludes the Quartz article. “Reading literature can change the way offenders see themselves and the world. This, in turn, makes life a litter better, and safer, for everyone.”

Ninety-five percent of the men and women currently in prison will eventually return to their communities. By providing prisoners with opportunities to learn, grow, and mature, society as a whole benefits. Prison Fellowship offers in-prison programming that seeks to transform hearts and minds, while providing practical advice and mentoring needed to help those leaving prison to succeed and thrive on the outside. To learn more about Prison Fellowship’s in-prison programming, and how you can get involved, click here.

Originally published at on October 12, 2016.