This Photo Series Shows Why Prison Education Is So Important

September 17th 2016

Thor Benson

Donato Di Camillo knew he wanted to be a photographer at a young age, but he never had a camera. He would look at magazines like National Geographic and dream about taking pictures like the ones featured in the magazine. In 2006, Camillo ended up in prison for crimes connected to the Colombo crime family. He was released five years later, but his passion for photography only grew while he was behind bars.

Donato DiCamillo

Camillio continued to study the photographs in the country's most famous photography magazines — publications like Life and Time — while he was incarcerated. Luckily those magazines were available to him, or his life could have been much different. In recent years, Camillo has become a known photographer and captures unusual portraits of people all around New York City.

His portraits capture the faces of the mentally ill, the homeless, and other people often unfortunately ignored by society.

Donato DiCamillo

Camillo's experience shows the importance of providing prisoners with educational materials, like magazines and books, while they're behind bars.

Organizations like Books to Prisoners and the Prison Book Program collect donated books and distribute them in prisons for this reason.

"Books are educational and prisoner education is a proven method of reducing recidivism," Marlene Cook, who helps run the Prison Book Program, told ATTN:. "Beyond that, reading does so much more. Prisoners do not leave their humanity at the door of the prison and Einstein once said, 'Once you stop learning, you start dying.' For that reason, we believe in all the other benefits of reading for prisoners too – that reading helps people develop empathy, that reading helps you learn useful skills, that reading self help books can help you cope with serious emotional issues, and for the huge percentage of prisoners who didn’t finish high school, learning to read builds self esteem."

Donato DiCamillo

Around 70 percent of U.S. prisoners have not completed high school, according to the Population Reference Bureau. A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found prison education can reduce recidivism by 40 percent. As we've reported before, arts programs have been known to greatly improve the lives of convicts. It benefits inmates and society when our prisons have educational programs, and people like Camillo are a clear example of how something as small as access to reading material can make a big difference.

President Obama announced in June the federal government will give Pell grants to over 12,000 inmates so they can participate in college classes. Inmates were previously blocked from receiving such grants by a 1994 crime bill.

Donato DiCamillo

"We're squandering opportunity by not giving people with a criminal record a second chance," Secretary of Labor Tom Perez said when the grants were announced. "Many of the people we’re trying to help, frankly, didn’t have a fair first chance."

The grants are a start, but it seems clear there's a lot more to do to make sure prisoners get rehabilitated instead of just getting punished. Education can and does change lives.