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Illinois kickstarts funding to state prison libraries with $420K in grants

prison jail book reading
Sally Deng
Special to NPR
“Books give these individuals a connection to the outside world, and that connection increases their chances of success after release,” Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias said about awarding $15,000 to libraries at the state’s 28 prisons.

Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias on Thursday announced his office is awarding $420,000 in grants to state prison libraries, marking the first time that reading centers for inmates have received significant public dollars in years.

That comes out to $15,000 for books, magazines, newspapers and supplies inside libraries at each of the state’s 28 prisons, according to Giannoulias, who called it his office’s most significant investment in the prison library system since the 1980s — and the first public funding of any kind dedicated to them since 2017.

“Books give these individuals a connection to the outside world, and that connection increases their chances of success after release,” Giannoulias told the Sun-Times ahead of the grant announcement. Besides overseeing driver services, the secretary of state also serves as Illinois’ top librarian.

Most prison libraries across the nation depend on nonprofits and private donations for reading materials and other supplies.

State funding has dried up since the turn of the century, when the Illinois Department of Corrections budgeted $750,000 for books, down to $264,000 in 2005 and just $276 in 2017, an Illinois Public Media investigation found.

Giannoulias’ office says Illinois is now the only state in the nation directing federal dollars from its annual allotment of Library Services and Technology Act funding to its prison libraries.

The $420,000 in grants to the state Department of Corrections represents about 7% of Illinois’ $5.7 million allotment this year. The rest goes to community libraries.

“From a moral standpoint, it’s the right thing to help people better their lives. From a financial standpoint, anything to reduce recidivism and help people find jobs will bring down the cost of incarceration and help the statewide economy,” said Giannoulias, who took office in January.

A 2018 state study found about 43% of people who are released from state prisons end up incarcerated again within three years. Each time a person lands back behind bars, it costs taxpayers more than $151,000, the study found.

Giannoulias said retired South Side Congressman Bobby Rush brought the library funding issue to his attention. In a statement, Rush said the new state grants “will make an impact at facilities throughout the state and provide invaluable resources to individuals who view them as a lifeline.”

Giannoulias’ office has also issued free state IDs to more than 2,000 former inmates upon their release from prison, which he called “critical to securing housing, employment, education/training and benefits when reentering society.”

Mitchell Armentrout is a staff reporter covering government and politics from Chicago to Springfield, focusing on the expansion of gambling across Illinois.