Dictionaries on a shelf

The Power of a Dictionary

“I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” — Malcolm X

When Malcolm X began a seven-year prison sentence for robbery in 1946, he struggled to write letters to people on the outside. He had trouble translating his thoughts onto a page. His increasing frustrations sparked within him a determination to self-educate and take advantage of formal and informal educational opportunities.

As he describes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X’s journey to education started with a dictionary:

“I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.”

After his release from prison, Malcolm X became one of the most prominent figures of the civil rights and Black nationalist movements, moving thousands with powerful public speeches before his assassination in 1965. These speeches were created by words he hand-copied and memorized from a dictionary in a tiny prison cell in Massachusetts.

Recidivism Rates Among Formerly Incarcerated People

Ninety-five percent of people who are currently incarcerated in the United States will eventually rejoin society after they finish serving their sentences. But according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 75% of formerly incarcerated individuals are rearrested within five years. Of that number, around 60% are reconvicted, demonstrating the perpetuation of mass incarceration.

These are extremely high rates of recidivism—“a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior.” To understand these numbers, we have to understand the network of discriminatory policies and practices that await released people: the felony box on job applications, eligibility exclusion from public services and assistance, voter disenfranchisement, and the impossible demands of parole that often lead to technical violations.  We agree with Erin Castro that “[t]racking recidivism is not a neutral endeavor”: “the evidence demonstrates that recidivism reveals less about an individual’s behavior than about a social system that systematically disadvantages people of color.” Incarcerated individuals are not the ones to blame for high recidivism rates.

Once a person is released from prison, it is difficult to find employment or continue their education. Almost 70% of people in prison do not have a high school diploma, and on top of that, having a criminal record decreases one’s chances of getting a job offer by 50%. The options for formerly incarcerated are limited. This leads APBP to ask: How can we create communities of genuine support for people returning to a society that contains roadblocks at seemingly every turn?

Self-Education in Prison

A three-state recidivism study was conducted in Minnesota, Maryland, and Ohio to test whether obtaining an education while incarcerated led to a decrease in recidivism rates after release from prison. It was determined that correctional education decreased long-term recidivism rates by 29%.

Another study of education in prisons, conducted in 2009, noted that conduct among people in prison slowly improved and argued that “changes in behavior can be attributed to improved cognitive capacity as well as to the incarcerated person having the opportunity to feel human again.”

Having access to education in prison, whether it be a person learning to read and write, teaching oneself a new language, educating oneself on legal terms and the law, seeking to expand one’s vocabulary, or taking a college class can have a significant impact on one’s quality of life after being released. Education introduces different perspectives, ideas, and understandings into peoples’ lives and offers ways for people on the inside to connect with the outside.

APBP Dictionary Requests

Of the 7,686 books APBP mailed in 2020, 864 were dictionaries and reference books. Dictionaries are the most requested book by people in prison across the United States; APBP receives dozens of dictionary requests from incarcerated people every week.

Many imprisoned people seek regular dictionaries so they can expand their vocabulary and self-educate. Some are interested in legal dictionaries so they can better understand legal terms and legal council. Others request language dictionaries, like Spanish-to-English or French-to-English, to help them learn new languages or improve their second-language skills.

Regardless of how people use dictionaries and other books while in prison, the benefits are clear: Education is a human right, and we’re here to support that right through reading.

Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project

APBP is in need of and accepts all kinds of paperback dictionary donations to keep up with the frequent dictionary requests. If you have any dictionaries or reference books you are not using, donate them to APBP and help change the life of a person in prison.


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