Inmates Spend Relatively More Time Reading Than Do Non-Inmates

face of a prisoner

Inmates in prisons and jails read much more than do persons not incarcerated. In the U.S. about 2003, inmates with access to television and reading material spent on average 2.4 hours per day reading. Persons ages 15 and over outside prisons and jails in 2004, sex-weighted according to the sex ratio of inmates, spent on average 0.3 hours per day reading. Inmates spend about seven times more time per day reading than do non-inmates.

While inmates’ possible activities are much more constrained than those of non-inmates, inmates spend slightly less time watching television than do non-inmates. Both radio and television have been omnipresent in prisons. A man who spent nine months in Canadian prisons about 1974 described the torment of radio:

Every cell and/or corridor is fitted with well-grated speakers, very occasionally flanked by a volume control but never by a kill button. We were, in other words, obliged to listen to rock music from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and no place to hide. … I couldn’t begin to count the number of times we asked the duty officer to shut the damn thing off, our ears were ringing and some of us wanted to sleep, to read, etc. – all to no avail. The camp staff insisted that we wanted the music, even if for some peculiar reason we didn’t realize that we did.^

Personal radios and music players subsequent became prevalent in prisons. Television became a media presence like radio had been. An academic has described television as a means to pacify inmates:

To regulate the mass of inmates, California’s prison officials have discovered a cheaper device {than books}: television. With sets in the cells, inmates can be pacified on popular entertainment. Cummins noted that whereas reading generates writing – all it requires is pencil and paper – viewing television has no tangible results. The political intelligentsia in prison bewails the strategy in language that recalls the mass culture critique. One inmate told Cummins: “I think the institution said, like, ‘What the fuck we doin’? Let’s give these motherfuckers a TV. That’ll stop ‘em from readin’ and writin’.’”^

Among inmates in the U.S. about the year 2004, 84% reported access to television as well as access to newspapers, magazines, or books. Inmates with such access spent on average 2.6 hours per day watching television. Non-inmates ages 15 and over, sex-weighted according to the sex ratio of inmates, spent on average 2.8 hours per day watching television. Television dominates the lives of inmates less than it does for non-inmates. Inmates read more and watch less television than do non-inmates.

Books are a relatively important type of reading for inmates compared to non-inmates. Among inmates in U.S. state and federal prisons in 2003 whose first language was English, 53% read books daily. Only 33% of non-inmates read books daily. Reading of letters and notes, in contrast, favors non-inmates. Among inmates, 34% read letters and notes daily. Among non-inmates, who spend much less total time reading, a larger share (53%) read letters and notes daily. Books are public works. Letters and notes are typically personal communication. Inmates’ communication is skewed toward public works relative to personal communication with friends and family.

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