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With ‘Freedom Libraries,’ teens in Baltimore’s youth detention center now have their pick of books

Baltimore Sun - 7/6/2023

The first book D.L. chose was “Punching the Air,” a novel he said was about a young person who had to go to court for beating someone up but wished people could see him as more than a “criminal.” The main character wanted to be seen as an artist, wanted people to “see his goodness,” D.L. said.

Even before he finished it, he chose a second, one written by former President Barack Obama.

The 18-year-old said he often reads books about action or guns but “wanted something different.”

Young people like D.L. who are incarcerated in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center now have their pick of titles from little libraries within their housing units, thanks to nonprofit Freedom Reads, which seeks to install them in prisons and detention centers nationwide.

Advocates called it a “revolutionary” shift that’s expanded access to reading materials for young people at the center. As of June, they can browse titles, peruse books and read what they want, with dozens of books available in their units.

The Baltimore Sun agreed not to name the three 18-year-olds interviewed for this article because they have pending cases stemming from charges filed when they were minors.

A curated selection at the juvenile center on Gay Street balances classics with new titles, combining fiction, poetry and other genres. On one shelf, the memoir “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls was bookended by existentialist classic “The Stranger” by Albert Camus and a 2022 urban fantasy called “Ballad & Dagger” by Daniel José Older. Other shelves held J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and award-winning young adult selections.

Freedom Reads’ founder, Reginald Dwayne Betts, envisions access to books as a way to help people in prison imagine new futures and remember their dignity.

Betts served eight years in Virginia prisons for a carjacking conviction when he was 16, and remembers books as pivotal during that time. Since his release in 2005, the poet and lawyer has become a published author, Yale Law School graduate and MacArthur Foundation fellow.

“Writing and reading is a pathway towards thinking, and towards understanding the world,” he said.

Betts, who grew up in Suitland, on June 8 visited Baltimore’s youth detention center and a state prison in Jessup, the first Maryland facilities outfitted with Freedom Libraries. So far, 172 libraries have been installed at 30 prisons and jails across 10 states, according to the nonprofit’s website.

Freedom Libraries’ shelves are curved, in homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea that the “arc of the moral universe ... bends toward justice,” and double-sided to encourage fellowship. Titles were chosen carefully through focus groups, surveys and interviews with scholars, Betts said.

The library at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in Jessup, will make browsing possible for people who work during the typical library time, according to Morgan Wright, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The agency also hopes to install a Freedom Library at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville.

“Education is proven to reduce recidivism, and often, education begins with somebody picking up a book,” the agency’s secretary, Carolyn J. Scruggs, said in an emailed statement.

The Department of Juvenile Services’ new secretary, Vincent Schiraldi, who said he pushed for the libraries to be installed in Baltimore’s juvenile center, told The Sun that institutionalization can “unnecessarily” rob people of individuality and humanness. The libraries, he said, are a way of softening and humanizing the facilities and of “tethering” young people to the real world. He hopes to bring the libraries to all state juvenile facilities.

“I want these young people to remain attached to the real world, not to detach from it and become an inmate,” Schiraldi said. “I don’t want to teach them to become adult prisoners. I want to teach them to become scholars.”

Unit 32 in Baltimore’s youth detention center, which houses seven people including D.L., already has eager readers.

D.F. first picked up a Rick Riordan book and is now on his second by the fantasy author. Riordan was a favorite of D.F.’s when he was younger, and he returned to his books recently to help “pass my time.”

He’s considering picking up Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” on Betts’ recommendation, he said, and also is considering writing to Betts to request some additional books.

K.W. chose “Fake ID” and “The Crossover,” the latter of which was made into a basketball movie. K.W. was surprised to find the book had poetry in it — “nothing bad about it,” he added.

The three teens agree the books are welcome additions that help them to fill idle time, read about other stories and experiences, keep their mind off conflicts with other people, and stay out of trouble.

Books can help to expand people’s minds, D.F. said: “Everybody has the potential to be somebody somewhere.”

D.L., who wants to become a landscaper because he likes working outside in any kind of weather, said books might help people change their actions, achieve their goals and make the best of their situation.

Nick Moroney, the head of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit within the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, said his team has consistently asked for more reading material for kids. For some of the youths, interest in books stems from a lack of other things to do, Moroney said, while others are “voracious readers.”

The unit’s report examining the fourth quarter of 2022 noted that “persistent boredom and a dearth of meaningful programming” were present across state facilities, and were “especially acute” at the Baltimore center.

Youth “lament the lack of access to books,” wrote Moroney’s watchdog team, adding that a room designated as an in-house library hadn’t been completed or stocked as of the end of last year.

Library services through the center’s school system improved “considerably” through the first three months of this year, according to the latest report, provided by Moroney. The progress included a new staffer to lead library services, who initiated a “timely system” for youths to request and receive books.

About 700 books have been sent to students in the past three months, said Kimberly Pogue, superintendent of the Juvenile Services Education Program.

Jenny Egan, a youth public defender, said the Freedom Libraries are a welcome complement because they allow kids to browse and have conversations about the books. In that way, Egan said, the libraries are “both revolutionary and the most mundane and basic thing.”

The center isn’t screening or approving titles, Schiraldi said.

Egan called books a “critical doorway” to empathy, caring and understanding, which she said is particularly important for young people put in a controlled environment like jail or prison, where decisions are made for them. That environment stops a natural maturation process of testing boundaries and learning consequences. She said that means it’s “critically important” to ensure they have opportunities for growth and development.

“When a child has the ability to access the world [through books], it is one of the things that can keep the light and hope and wonder alive,” she added. “When you lock a child in a cell, without access to it, it does way more damage than we have ever reckoned with.”

The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center houses teenage boys who are awaiting court hearings, as well as those who are waiting for placement in a treatment center after a judge’s determination. It also holds children or teens just picked up by police who are awaiting an initial hearing.

Moroney and Egan said the juvenile center still needs vital improvements — like activities outside of youths’ school hours — but say the Freedom Libraries are an “exciting first step” to investing in kids and their minds.

Schiraldi said other improvements are in the works. In the near future, he said, the center will work with the young people to start after-school clubs. And, he said, there’s movement toward a “pending placement unit” within the center that would allow youths to start their judge-requested therapy or treatment if spaces at other state facilities are filled.

When The Sun visited on a recent weekday, there were 78 young people at the center, ranging in age from 14 to 18. Of those, 88% were Black, a manifestation of the overrepresentation of young people of color in the juvenile justice system.

More than half were children who were charged as adults and were waiting for a transfer hearing to determine whether their cases would be in juvenile or adult court. Maryland is an outlier in the number of children it automatically charges in adult court; advocates’ efforts to change the state’s practice of automatically charging youths for specific felony offenses are ongoing.

To Betts, the libraries and books can help people understand themselves better.

That’s especially true for young people as the city focuses on youth crime and shootings, Schiraldi said.

“We’re all talking about them. They’re one of the hottest topics in our community. But we don’t often hear from them,” Schiraldi said. “I want the world to come to them, in the form of Dwayne [Betts]’s books. I also want them to come to the world.”

D.L. said young people often are judged based on what they’re charged with, without the context of “what we’ve been through.” Young people’s decision-making can be influenced by their family life, financial situation, mental health and other factors, the teens said. Some people have no father or mother or family, and others need to help to feed their family, D.L. said.

Looking at them differently or fearfully, or seeing youths as bad people doesn’t help, he said. Nor is putting them “behind a door” without letting them get “our point of view across.”

“Just because we’re locked up doesn’t mean we’re bad people for real,” D.L. said.

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