Books Offer Second Chances at County Jails

Bridges Library System Donates Books to Inmates at County Jails

Book donations

Each July and December, hundreds of new textbooks, novels, movies, and more are sorted and packed into cardboard boxes. No, this isn’t Santa’s workshop. The books and materials are donations from the Bridges Library System for use at the Waukesha County and Jefferson County jails.

While stacks of Harry Potter books, dictionaries, and nature documentaries might seem pretty ordinary, these materials change lives through adult education partnerships between the library system, the two jails, and the Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) and the Jefferson County Literacy Council (JCLC).

Link Between Reading Failure and Crime

According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” WCTC and the JCLC seeks to mitigate this by serving the jails through adult education programs that provide “individualized career planning and exploration services and help individuals develop a plan for post-secondary education or training upon release,” according to Lynn Forseth, Executive Director of the JCLC. Through WCTC’s literacy education programs at the jail, inmates have the opportunity to attend classes where they build “vocabulary, knowledge, and a greater appreciation for the world of books,” according to Susan Taylor, Adult Basic Education instructor with WCTC. She continues, “Increasing literacy has the potential to increase employment, aspirations, physical and mental health, and thereby aid in the crime prevention strategy.”

It also reduces recidivism, which is the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. A 2009 study from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that “correctional education improves the chances that inmates who are released from prison will not return.”

Book Donations Offer Access to Reading

WCTC has offered classes for nearly 30 years with the support of the Waukesha County Jail, and for more than five years, the Bridges Library System has donated books and other learning materials for use in the classroom and in the jail’s housing units. Graphic novels, teen coloring books, and popular Young Adult novels are also purchased and distributed at the Waukesha County Juvenile Center and Lad Lake, a juvenile care center.

Two women stand in front of two tables piled with books

Lynn Forseth and Angela Meyers with book donations for the Jefferson County Jail

The Bridges Library System started donating new books and other materials to the JCLC for use at the Jefferson County Jail in 2017. In addition, the JCLC was able to create a Career Library for individuals seeking to explore career options post-release. With the library system’s assistance, materials on careers like welding and CNC operations, as well as books on resume writing and interviewing skills were made available to inmates.

Instructors and inmates put in requests for specific materials, such as Careers in Computer Science, spiritual self-help books, presidential biographies, crossword puzzles, the Planet Earth documentary, and popular novels by Kurt Vonnegut and others.

“There Is A Whole World of Books”

These donations aid the work of both organizations by expanding inmates’ access to reading materials; they also fulfill the mission of libraries to improve our communities through universal access to information and ideas. Bridges Library System’s Inclusive Services Librarian Angela Meyers works with both Forseth and Taylor to make this happen. “As a librarian,” Meyers says, “I want the inmates to know that there is a whole world of books outside the walls of a jail.”

The partnership continues to flourish due to the popularity of the books and materials donated. “There are daily requests by students in the WCTC classroom for books that interest them,” Taylor says. Of 84 inmates surveyed at the Waukesha County Jail, 88% said they regularly use the book cart. “The career-related books and videos are especially popular with learners who already have a high school diploma and are either contemplating a career change or seeking to advance in an existing field,” Forseth says about Jefferson County Jail inmates. Recently, an inmate completed the entire GED program, Forseth reports, and left jail “with his high school diploma in hand, largely because of access to textbooks…purchased by the Bridges Library System.” Sometimes a second chance, and hope of a better life, is right there in the pages of a book.

Written by Jill Fuller. A version of this article appeared in the Waukesha Freeman, the Oconomowoc Enterprise, the Daily Jefferson County Union, the Waterloo Courier, and the Watertown Times. We will be sharing those pieces here on our website a few weeks after each piece has been printed.