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For Inmates, Restoring Books Can Repair Lives

An inmate at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, Maryland, repairs a damaged library book. (VOA/J. Spierling )

An inmate at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, Maryland, repairs a damaged library book. (VOA/J. Spierling )

At the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, Maryland, a small group of inmates repairs damaged library books.

Sitting at a long table covered with glue, scissors and tape, the six men fix broken spines, reassemble torn pages and replace missing covers.

They've received special training to do this delicate restoration work, which they perform five days a week.

In the process, inmates like Gregory Wallace are learning new skills and earning “good-time credit” which could help reduce their sentences.

“I like doing the spine detachments because those are the books that get thrown away,” says Wallace. “It’s easy to tape a loose page back together but once the spine comes apart basically those books go in the garbage.”

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According to Wallace, when he first looks at a damaged book, he feels it’s “mission impossible,” but when he sees that people are pleased with the final result, he feels a lot better for doing it.

And in restoring the books, he believes he's healing himself, as well.

“I didn’t have a very strong work ethic,” Wallace says. “I chose the streets, and being that I chose the streets, here I am now. But just being able to come in here and do something productive has shown me that I can be productive in society as well, instead of choosing a different direction.”

Many of America’s prisons are revolving door facilities. More than 60 percent of ex-convicts find themselves back behind bars within three years, according to federal statistics.

Prison officials use a variety of programs to help reduce recidivism: classes, vocational training, therapy and, at the Maryland facility, the book repair program.

Building confidence is one of the goals of the program, says Warden Robert Green, who developed the book-repair project.

“The biggest problem we have in American corrections, and international corrections worldwide, is the amount of violence inside our systems. Period. There is no larger problem,” he says. “So if we can address the violence issue where people see value in the work that they’re doing, some worth in their existence inside those walls, perhaps violence will go down.”

Green has been at the Maryland facility for 12 years and has been a warden or senior administrator for 20 years.

“I have never stopped believing that if you give a person tangible worth inside the facility, and something to do with their time," he says, "they will avail themselves of it and do the very best that they can.”

Since the program began in April 2012, 22 inmates have repaired more than 400 books, which are sent to the facility by six area public libraries.

Boxes arrive several times a month, with volumes in a variety of sizes and on a wide range of topics; everything from art and history to children’s books. Many are no longer in print, but now, thanks to the inmates' work, they are back in circulation.

And that gives Wallace hope for his own future.

“My goals are to go home, get a job, might not be the job that I want, but to get a job and apply for school,” he says.

Following its initial success, the book repair project will be expanded early next year to all 21 public libraries in the county and Warden Green hopes to eventually accept damaged books from local public schools and colleges, as well, and get more inmates involved.

“I don’t make excuses for crime, criminal behavior, but when we have a captive audience, shame on us if we do nothing to help them change their lives,” Green says.

Government representatives from more than a dozen countries, including Saudi Arabia and China, have visited the Maryland facility to learn more about the book repair program, suggesting it might one day help to change lives all around the world.

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