Why This L.A. Funder Created a Children’s Library at Men’s Central Jail

Khloe, age 7, at the new children’s library. Photo courtesy of Jacob Erbes, Gordon Philanthropies.

Visitation areas at jails and prisons are typically spare and unwelcoming, with fluorescent lighting, stark linoleum floors, functional furniture and few amenities. But at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, the visitation room now features a cozy corner with bright carpets, chairs and tables, playful wall decorations, board games, and shelves and shelves of children’s books. 

The new children’s library at Men’s Central Jail is a project of Gordon Philanthropies. The small, Los Angeles-based philanthropy was created by Daniel Gordon, a founding partner at GLD Partners, a private equity firm. The foundation supports education and literacy programs, and the importance of reading is a central focus. As a tagline on its website reflects: “Communities that read together, grow together.” 

Gordon Philanthropies’ initiatives include literacy programs for infants and toddlers, students and families. For instance, it supports the Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program at Pitzer College in Pomona, California, which allows incarcerated individuals to earn a BA while in prison (one recent graduate, who spent 15 years in prison, recently won a Fulbright Fellowship).

The new children’s library at Men’s Central grew out of another Gordon Philanthropies program that provides inmates with books and recording devices so they can record themselves reading to their children for Mother’s or Father’s Day at facilities including the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, also in Los Angeles. The recordings and books are then sent to the inmates’ children (see a local news report about the program).

“We were doing the program for Mother's Day and Father's Day and started wondering if there was a way to create something more permanent,” Daniel Gordon told me. “That’s how the idea for the children’s library came about. It’s a way to not only provide books for kids, but it provides an opportunity for parents at the jail to connect with their children.”  

Gordon added this when the new library was announced: “Gordon Philanthropies firmly believes that education and family involvement are the ingredients children require to go on and live truly fulfilling and productive lives. Our organization hopes that this modest effort can contribute to those needs.”

A dearth of funding

Gordon Philanthropies’ effort may be modest — the library project at Men’s Central Jail cost $10,000; the foundation also committed to replenishing the library with books as needed — but it’s more than many far bigger philanthropies are doing. (Gordon Philanthropies’ total revenue was $286,000 in 2021, according to its 990 filing.) 

There are, of course, a range of major funders that support criminal justice reform, as we outlined in our report, Giving for Criminal Justice. That said, the amount of funding in this area has traditionally been low compared to other sectors, notwithstanding the surge after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police and subsequent nationwide protests. In addition to advocacy around reforming the system outright, those funders often back programs including support for former inmates reentering society, and education and skills training for incarcerated people.

But there do not appear to be many funders supporting programs for children with incarcerated parents, at least that we could identify. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has done some work in this area; there are also a number of scholarship programs for children with incarcerated parents, including this list compiled by Rutgers University. (We’d love to hear from readers with information about funders in this space that we may have overlooked.) 

This dearth of funding likely reflects, at least in part, the lack of sympathy many Americans have for those involved in the criminal justice system, and larger fears and frustrations about crime. These attitudes go a long way toward maintaining a prison system that emphasizes punishment, and doesn’t provide enough education and job skills opportunities, even though such programs have been shown to reduce recidivism (see this Brennan Center report on how prison systems in some European countries are both more humane and more effective). Instead, our current system perpetuates a cycle that boosts both crime and misery for everyone involved.

Good for kids, good for parents

Meanwhile, an alarming number of children are innocent bystanders in this dysfunctional system. An estimated 2.7 million children have at least one incarcerated parent, and 5 million have dealt with parental incarceration at some point. There is also abundant evidence of the toll incarceration takes on children and families. 

That toll is heaviest among children of color: Black children are six times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children, a fact that Dana Suskind, a professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago, pointed out in the Hechinger Report. Suskind lists the many negative effects that parental incarceration can have on children, pointing to evidence showing that the trauma of separation, increased risk of poverty and instability and other factors often impede emotional and academic development. Suskind urges facilities to expand visiting opportunities and institute more programs to allow inmates and their children to interact and spend quality time together.

There is evidence that maintaining family connections improves behavior and lowers rates of recidivism. Los Angeles Superior Judge Craig Mitchell underscored this point when the children’s library at Men’s Central Jail was announced. “One of the best ways to insure against recidivism of those who are incarcerated is to ensure that the ties that bind the incarcerated to their families remain intact,” Mitchell said. “Moreover, there are few forces more powerful than a child's love for their parents.”

Mitchell, a former high school teacher, worked with Gordon Philanthropies to establish the children’s library. “Judge Mitchell has been a leader from the bench in understanding where the criminal justice system falls short and where we can  make some improvements,” Gordon said. “He's been a great ally and advocate and supporter.” 

There are signs that others in the criminal justice system, including some jail and prison administrators, are taking steps to enhance connections between inmates and their families. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for one, supported the idea of establishing the children’s library at the Men’s Central Jail. “I give the sheriff's department a lot of credit,” Gordon said. “There were any number of reasons they could have come up with to say no. Instead, they said, ‘Sure, that sounds like a good opportunity.’” 

During the event celebrating the opening of the children’s library, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna called it “a place where children can find comfort, strengthen their bonds with their loved ones, and most importantly, maintain a sense of normality during the most difficult times,” according to one report.

There are other examples out there. The San Francisco County Jail has created a more welcoming space for families at its facilities. Each of Georgia’s women’s prisons has a special children’s visiting center, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report. A report by the Urban Institute highlights effective ways to reduce barriers to family connections.

Still, the children’s library at the Los Angeles jail is one of the first of its kind. Gordon Philanthropies is exploring the idea of establishing children’s libraries at other Los Angeles facilities, as well. 

“The kids didn’t do anything wrong”

Daniel Gordon is modest about his philanthropy and doesn’t like to talk about what motivates his giving. “My view on philanthropy goes back to that saying you hear quite a bit: To whom much is given, much is expected in return,” he said, after some prodding. “I've been very fortunate. I attribute that to the educational advantages I’ve had, and to some hard work and probably a lot of luck. If I can do my part to give back — I think that's an important thing for any of us to do. We shouldn't be afraid of helping folks to achieve success. And I think a lot of that success comes from a quality education.”

Still, Gordon couldn’t help expressing some pride when he talked about the new library and the difference it will make in families’ lives. “The majority of the people at the Men’s Central Jail are fathers,” he said. “When families go to visit, the wait time between when you check in and when you see the prisoner is about an hour. Imagine having a five-year-old or a seven-year-old trying to sit on a metal bench for an hour waiting to see their parent. Now, they can go sit in the library, read a book or play a game, and then they can take the book and read it with their father.”

He described the enthusiasm of the families at a recent opening celebration for the library. “The kids were loving it, really enjoying the books,” he said. “The mothers and the grandmothers who were there were incredibly appreciative. I think it would be hard for anybody to be there and not see the potential good that could come from it.”

The Urban Institute report included a comment from a visitor after one facility added kid-friendly decorations to its lobby walls. “It's nice to see that they're thinking about the kids coming through here,” the visitor said. “These kids didn't do anything wrong. They deserve to feel like it's okay coming here to see their parents.”