The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Report from the Field: Hagerstown, Maryland

March 26
Hagerstown, Maryland

Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown Librarian Mary Stevanus, who initiated participation in The Big Read, with inmates Michael Zemanick, Paul Coleman, and Michael Ringgold at the March 1 Big Read kick-off.  Photo by Mark Vernarelli

Maryland Correctional Education Libraries, which is responsible for managing the libraries within the state's correctional system, is hosting a Big Read of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 throughout March. Courtesy of Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, here?s a report from the field on their Big Read.

This spring, Maryland Division of Correction prison libraries have been able to buy hundreds of books and organize dozens of reading and discussion groups thanks to a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Big Read uses Fahrenheit 451, a book about a society in which books are banned, as its theme. The idea: to get disenfranchised or lapsed readers (like inmates) to pick up a book.

Sixty-eight percent of all inmates come into the system without a high school diploma. Educating them is not only a good thing to do; it?s essential, because without education, job skill training, and re-entry transition resources, inmates are more likely to fail. And when they fail, many commit new crimes---and make new victims.

Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown (MCI-H) and Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI)  libraries kicked off The Big Read with special events. ECI librarian June Brittingham even had the prison graphics shop inmates make bookmarks. If it sounds like they made it a big deal, they did, because sometimes, picking up a book is the first step for an inmate to move down the right path. 

Despite popular opinion, inmates do not come to prison libraries solely to research their legal cases or learn how to win a sentence reduction. MCI-H Assistant Warden Rich Dovey points out that his prison?s library serves more than one thousand inmates a month, and that those inmates check out more than a thousand books and resource materials each month. Most of the borrowed material deals not with legal issues, but job training, housing, and re-entry services.

If The Big Read grant means inmates will reconnect with materials that will make them better taxpaying citizens, then this will be one important grant, not just for inmates, but for the public at large.

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