Students at Grambling State University in Louisiana have issued a challenge to other HBCUs, urging them to collect books for prison libraries.

Last year, student members of Grambling’s Psychology and Sociology Club toured a state prison and were struck by the shortage of books in the facility’s library. So, they organized a book drive this spring, raising 225 books for the inmates at Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe. 

“We are trying to provide prisoners with books to enhance their reading skills, because you never know whose life you can change through a book,” said Jack Chandler, president of the Psychology and Sociology Club, in a statement. “We believe reading is fundamental and empowering. Being confined to prison walls every day is not really living, so a book can help you escape your reality, even if it is momentary.”

Inspired by their first success, the students are organizing another drive—but they want the effects of their efforts to reach past their own school, and have invited other HBCUs to take on similar initiatives.

We are now calling it the HBCU Challenge and expanding it to a number of other HBCUs,” said Matt Sheptoski, assistant professor of sociology and club adviser. “We ask that other schools adopt a prison and that clubs, primarily psychology and/or sociology clubs, collect books, and we will count them up and see who wins the friendly competition.”

In July, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program to help prisoners finish their postsecondary education with the goal of find jobs, supporting their families and generally turning their life around after incarceration. Not everyone supports the idea, however, as evidenced by the counter-legislation, “Kids Before Cons” Act. 

However, research has shown that prison education can have a significant impact on reducing recidivism. According to a Rand Corp. study, inmates who participate in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison in three years than those who did not and had 13 percent higher odds of gaining employment after release.

Education was also found to reduce disciplinary infractions among prisoners. For example, in a May 2011 NPR report on the library at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland, inmates talked about the impact of books on their lives.

“Without the library, I think some of them will go insane,” one unidentified prisoner said. “Like, I mean, it helps occupy my mind a lot of times. Like right now I’m reading a basic financial management book and things like that. And if I didn’t have that, no telling what I’d be doing or what I’d get into.”

Eddie Connally, then a long-time resident of the facility, also commented on the impact of the library.

“I’ve been locked up for, like, 40 years, right? But the library—and I’ve been watching it over the decades—[…] people that come in the prison system and use the library, it actually impacts how they’re thinking,” Connally said. “ challenging aspect of books in the library is what I see that ripples out into the population and it changes people. One day you see a very angry guy, you know, three months later you see somebody who’s trying to figure out how can I get out of here? How can I improve myself? How can I move forward? It’s the library.”