A Library Saved His Life
Prison libraries are key to turning around lives and access to the law is justice in action.
Ok, libraries are great — but saving a life? How is that possible? Libraries can’t rescue a drowning person from a lake or pull someone from a burning house. So, how can a library save a life? But in a recent keynote address to the American Association of Law Librarians, Georgetown University law professor Shon Hopwood explained how a library saved his life.
His library story is about a highly specialized library — a law library. But not the kind of law library you might expect, in a law school library, or a law firm — this was a prison law library. And Hopwood was a convicted felon doing twelve and a half years for bank robbery.
As Hopwood told the story of how, at age twenty-three, he was convicted of armed bank robbery and sentenced to twelve and a half years in federal prison. While there, a fellow inmate gave him a chance to work in the prison library. As he shelved law books, he became interested in their contents and began reading the law. He taught himself how to advocate, and how to file petitions. Other inmates began consulting him about their legal problems, and eventually, he succeeded in having two petitions granted by the US Supreme Court. These and other efforts led to legal victories for the inmates he advocated for, including substantial sentence reductions. His exceptional skills as an advocate brought him to the attention of the legal profession, most notably former US Solicitor General Seth Waxman.
After serving his sentence, and with the help of Waxman and a few others willing to take a chance on him, Hopwood was able to overcome prejudices against ex-offenders and build a legal career. He went to law school, passed the Bar, and eventually gained his current position as a professor at one of the country’s most prestigious law schools. (Hopwood’s story is told at length in his 2012 memoir, “Law Man,” co-authored with Dennis M. Burke.)
And it all began in the library. According to Hopwood, the law library gave him the freedom to pursue learning, it broke his self-centeredness and enabled him to focus on helping others, and it nurtured his confidence that he could succeed. It was the one element in the prison environment that contradicted the daily message that “you [the prisoner] are garbage, and you’ll be back.” It saved his life.
Now, Hopwood advocates for reform in our prison and criminal justice systems. In his speech to the law librarians, he noted that the United States, the land of liberty, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. He pointed out that we are historically the country of second chances, and we should be in the business of granting second chances to the many inmates who, he is convinced, can turn their lives around and make positive contributions to their communities — if given a second chance. There’s every reason to take the steps he advocates. Criminal justice reforms make sense from the economic perspective (keeping someone in jail is expensive!), the social justice perspective, and above all, the human perspective.
And libraries need to play a major role. As with Hopwood, the library provides a vital educational resource for many prisoners. Yet prison libraries are chronically under-funded. According to the US Bureau of Prisons, it cost over $36,000 to incarcerate each inmate in the Federal prison system in Fiscal year 2017 (Federal Register, April 30, 2018, ). Using 2015 data, the Vera Institute calculates that state prisons alone cost each and every US resident an average of $137 a year. (Vera Institute, accessed July 30, 2019). Meanwhile, prison libraries are chronically underfunded, and at least one state, South Dakota, has tried to eliminate its prison law library in favor of inadequate, commercial tablet computers. (Rapid City Journal, June 22, 2018, ). In fact, the total annual US operating expenditure on all public libraries is under $40 per person — less than one-third what we spend on state prisons alone. (US Institute of Museum and Library Services, Public Libraries Survey Fiscal Year 2016, Supplementary Tables, Table 25, )
Spending a few dollars on library services in prisons could have a big impact on both lives and costs. In many communities large and small, from New York City to Hancock County, Georgia, population 9,429, public libraries have stepped up to deal with this challenge. In New York, the New York Public Library runs libraries in five city correctional facilities, as well as providing borrowing services to state prison inmates, and programs like a book discussion group at the Federal Metropolitan Detention Center. In Hancock County, the public library stepped in to augment an inadequate prison library collection by offering library cards and book delivery to inmates of the Hancock State Prison and is exploring programming initiatives as well.
So, find out what your local library is doing to give prisoners a second chance. And the next time you have a chance to support public library services to prisoners, say yes. You might just help save a life!