BY JUDY PEET
Star-Ledger Staff
Saturday, July 24, 2004

Bars hold them prisoner, words could set them free
Reading program says prisoners rehabilitate better with books that prepare them for life

Reading a Harlequin romance may help pass the time behind bars, but it does nothing to help inmates prepare for life on the outside, according to Rutgers social scientists who have launched a new program, "Books Behind Bars."

The program's goal is to supply books to prisons that "help guide recovery and rehabilitation," said Nancy Wolff, director of the Center for Mental Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the 2-year-old center has done several studies of New Jersey inmates. Among its findings are that inmates are not getting the help they need to prepare for life after prison and that prison libraries are of little help.

"Prison libraries have plenty of fiction and legal books, but there is almost nothing that addresses self- help recovery and rehabilitation, particularly at Edna Mahan, the state's only women's prison," Wolff said.

To launch Books Behind Bars, the center is sponsoring a Thursday presentation by Elaine Bartlett and Jennifer Gonnerman at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton.

Bartlett served 16 years in Bedford Hills prison for a first-time drug conviction, before being granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki in December 1999. Written by journalist Gonnerman, "Life on the Outside," is a critically-acclaimed account of Bartlett's incarceration and her transition back into society.

The first goal of Books Behind Bars is to donate copies of "Life on the Outside" and other self-help books to the Edna Mahan library, Wolff said. The center is seeking funding, not book donations, "because we want to hand-pick books that will, hopefully, have an impact for inmates."

Books are selected by a committee of prison administrators, people with criminal histories, community representatives and academics, Wolff said. The center has negotiated volume discounts with publishers, and all donated money will be used to buy books.

After stocking the Edna Mahan library, Books Behind Bars hopes to move on to other prison libraries in New Jersey and across the country.

Donations may be made to the Rutgers University Foundation. For more information and a donation form, call Wolff at (732) 932-6635 or visit the center's Web site at cmhs-cjr.rutgers.edu.

© 2004 The Star-Ledger