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Should the incarcerated have access to books?

Residents of Toronto’s provincial detention centres have gone without regular access to books for about two years, the Toronto Star reports. Funding cuts have forced volunteers to take over responsibility for libraries in the province’s correctional facilities, and the candidate pool seems to have run dry.

From the Star:

At the Toronto East Detention Centre, library service has been sporadic for 16 years because of a lack of volunteers, said Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Correctional Services ministry. Student volunteers have filled in occasionally during the last two years, he said, adding that jails have relied on volunteers since 1996 when the province laid off all librarians in correctional institutions…. Toronto West and East are the only two of Ontario’s 29 detention centres without library volunteers, Ross said.

The article was sparked by a blog post by Alex Hundert, who was an inmate at Toronto West Detention Centre after pleading guilty to charges related to 2010’s Toronto G20 protests.

From Hundert’s blog:

When I requested to have the library cart sent to the range so I could borrow a book, the guards told me they haven’t seen the cart in ages…. [T]hose of us locked up here, most not yet having been convicted of any crime, have had no access to books to read…. I have no idea why those in charge of the system would want to deny people books. I would think Corrections would encourage literacy in here, especially when so many of those incarcerated are so young and undereducated…. Denying people books feels like somewhat cruel and unusual punishment.

Hundert goes on to note that though inmates can purchase some books from the canteen, or have books sent in from the outside under very strict conditions, a recent search of the unit he lived in saw all books and magazines confiscated.

The article and Hundert’s post raise a few important questions: if part of the purpose of incarceration is to rehabilite criminalized people and prepare them for re-entry to mainstream society, what role can books play in these processes? And provided books and libraries have their place in detention centres, should these resources be government- or volunteer-funded and operated? Should the responsibility of promoting literacy and access to books fall to average citizens?