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Students Collect Books for Inmates to Promote Literacy


Lee Middle School students are helping local prison inmates turn the page to a better life — literally.

The Godfrey-Lee Public Schools eighth-grade students recently became aware of the stark correlation between illiteracy and incarceration, and it inspired them to take action by providing a local prison with more reading materials.

They challenged their sixth-through-eighth grade peers to donate books to inmates at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia.

They are working to collect as many books as possible to add to the shelves of the prison library, said eighth-grader Ja’Nae Matthews.

“We want to have a positive impact,” she said. “I hope it stops people from doing bad things in the future.”

The Link Between Illiteracy and Incarceration

  • 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
  • More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
  • Penal institution records show that inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70 percent who receive no help.
  • Illiteracy and crime are closely related. According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” More than 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.

Source: begintoread.com; dosomething.org

It’s a way to help a population often cast aside by society, students said.

“It surprised me that they couldn’t read so they made bad choices,” said eighth-grader Casandra Dievendorf. “Their families can’t read to their kids.”

Students are competing by grade level to raise the most books, gathering donations of all types of genres and reading levels. The drive goes through the end of May.

“I hope they get more education from the books, learn from their mistakes. They can help themselves by reading,” said eighth-grader Carlos Savala.

Community members can drop off donations at Lee Middle/High School, 1335 Lee St. SW.

Inspired by Reading

Teacher Chris DeMaagd had her students read articles in class, which inspired the book drive. One piece, “Ex-con saved by reading uses literacy to combat crime by at-risk youth,” by Gail Rosenblum, published Oct. 30, 2014 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tells the story of A.J. Briscoe, a former gang member and five-time felon.

While in prison, Briscoe immersed himself in reading. He created a prison literacy program in Tennessee. After being released, he started a program to reach children through books called “To Succeed You Must Read!”

Another article, “Study: Teens who expect to die young are more likely to commit crime,” by Sarah Mervosh, published May 11, 2014 in the Dallas Morning News, focuses on how children raised in tough neighborhoods see no options for their future except jail or death. Knowing there are other options — like an education — gives students a more long-term view and a way out of the prison pipeline.

“This is just an opportunity to help in another way,” said DeMaagd. “To me, this book drive is important because they are not just people who are in prison, who are just there and forgotten. They are still people; they still have needs and interests and want to better themselves regardless of what side (of the penitentiary walls) they are on.”

Eighth-grader Vanessa Brown holds books to donate
Eighth-grader Vanessa Brown holds books to donate

DeMaagd was inspired by her daughter, Jacklyn DeMaagd, a criminal justice major at Grand Valley State University. Jacklyn took a class at the Ionia prison, which involved 15 GVSU students and 15 inmates. It gave her a new perspective.

“We really got toknow them and it made me realize not everybody in prison is an terrible, evil monster,” said Jacklyn DeMaagd, who will deliver the books to the prison. “I think it will benefit them because it will help them realize people on the outside really care about their well being and want them to succeed when they get out.

DeMaagd said she knows of Lee students who have friends and family members in jail.

“Some of the students have connections personally, and they can do something that can help. They can see, ‘Wow,’ there’s someone who cares and wants to help.'”

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Statistics on Literacy in America

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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