Except for GED programs, prisoner education was all but wiped out in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, President Bill Clinton made prisoners ineligible to receive Pell Grants for post-secondary education. School was out.
That’s not tough on crime -- it’s just plain dumb. Educated prisoners, for the most part, got out of prison and stayed out.
Opportunities to learn are even more limited in county jails. Most jail prisoners are awaiting trial and stay only a few months. But that hasn’t stopped Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp from jump-starting a desire to learn in his nearly 500 inmates.
A neat, clean, and welcoming 2,000-book library on the jail’s second floor has inmates checking out books by authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker -- and even writing poetry. Most of the books are donated.
Last year, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library ended its contract with the jail, effective July 31, because librarians had security concerns -- even though an officer was always there. It’s better they left. You can’t help people if you fear them.
Sheriff Tharp took the $75,000 a year that went for the public library contract and assigned one of his counselors to work in the library. He removed the wooden barrier that separated library workers from the inmates, scrubbed the place, expanded hours, and rearranged the shelves to provide a more open setting. The library re-opened last September, with motivational slogans and photos of historical figures such as Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela lining the wall.
"We didn’t want it to feel like a jail,’’ said Marion Boss, a retired University of Toledo professor and businesswoman who helps run the library.
Inmates can spend up to an hour an week in the library and check out two books at a time. About 300 inmates a month use the library. There’s been no theft and few disturbances.
"They enjoy the program and are respectful of it,’’ Deputy Sheriff Aaron Nolan, director of inmate services, told me.
The jail sponsored a poetry contest in March that received nearly 50 entries.
Federico Ortiz, 25, of Toledo, won with a poem entitled "Expiration Date."
"It feels good to come down here, check out some books, and relax,’’ he said. Federico is awaiting trail for aggravated burglary. "I have a bad temper. I’m bipolar, and writing poems takes me away," he said.
Federico plans to learn a trade but also wants to continue writing poetry and publish a book for kids. "I’d like to be a Shel Silverstein,’’ he said.
Dreams can start anywhere -- if they’re given a chance to grow.
"We don’t have them long but, if we can encourage them to read, learn, and gain self respect, it’s a step in the right direction,’’ said Sheriff Tharp.
Those wanting to donate books, including the law library, should contact Deputy Sheriff Aaron Nolan: 419.213.4971, or firstname.lastname@example.org