“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner, HMP Pentonville, UK.
3 years ago, the UK High Court overturned a Conservative government-imposed ban on books inside prisons. Campaigners argued that books were an integral part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners, and a number of charities, notably The Reading Agency and Books to Prisoners have long championed literature as a tool of redemption and education.
Let’s explore this in more detail.
Transformation and metamorphosis
Books that seem to be popular among many prisoners are those that hold pertinent messages of transformation, like Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. These stories seem to help inmates craft a new identity for themselves – convincing them of the possibility of not only surviving but even thriving within the tough environment of prison.
And, with an estimated 50% of UK prisoners unable to read or write, the ability to access books, or participate in reading groups, provides not just motivation; but other practical skills, too.
Rod Clark, Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, explains: “a seemingly simple book can be incredibly valuable to someone serving a prison sentence – from teaching him or her to read, to developing a love of learning, to feeling empathy for characters to encouraging people to tell their own stories”.
A great escape
An age-old, oft-made joke is that you can escape prison by reading a book. But it’s not simple escapism that literature offers those serving hard time; but something far more important – hope. For prisoners who are able to access and engage with literature – at whatever level, freedom doesn’t have to begin for them when their cell doors are opened and they are finally allowed to walk back out onto the streets in some distant future. It can begin immediately – whenever they open up the pages of a book.
This isn’t simple idealism. Rather, it is based on hard evidence that reading can dramatically improve the lives of prisoners. In the Critical Survey, ‘Reading for Life’: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory, research concluded that another vital benefit of providing prisoners with books to read was that it helped alleviate feelings of depression. The author of the survey, Josie Billington, explains:
“A rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature […] proved especially important in encouraging participants to engage in discussion and address their depression directly.”
The survey found that, not only were inmates starting to claim direct benefits of feeling happier, more content as a result of the literature they were reading; but that they were becoming more self-aware as a result of reading it. The authors note that there was “a significant proportion” of prisoners who found that, by engaging with specific set texts, they were able to rediscover old or forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible modes of thought, feeling and experience.
That prisoners, then, are often drawn to books about transformation may not be so surprising. For through their engagement with literature, many are undergoing a personal metamorphosis of their own.
As Wolfgang Iser recognised long ago, literature has the power to change and restore. This is because when you read a story, you can find yourself temporarily transported from bad, anxious, troubling or unhappy thoughts because of your absorption in a story. In this way, the relationship between a reader and a fictional work is different from that between an observer and an object – it is different from that between a viewer and a television set, also. It is an active relationship that requires the reader to possess a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. Readers have to create worlds and characters for themselves, partly through their imagination, and partly guided by the author of any given text.
This is why readers become “caught up in the very thing they are producing,” as Henry James put it, which means “they have the illusion of having lived another life.”
This is a powerful reaction to produce in a human being – and one that helps readers discover new awareness of empathy for others. When readers empathise with people in books, they are mimicking the same empathy they would feel for people in similar situations in real life. For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is a critical part of their rehabilitation.
Again, this proposition is based on hard evidence. In 2014, the UK Ministry of Justice produced a report that indicated prison inmates who had access to educational courses that focused heavily on literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such courses.
Freedom through literature
What all this seems to come down to is the way prison, in its current form, is designed not only to keep inmates physically confined; but mentally restricted, too. Yet by closing down the thoughts of prisoners, you restrict the opportunity for their minds to perceive of the world as a land of opportunity and freedom; and instead only as a place of narrow paths that likely follow the same routes that ultimately lead back to prison.
Literature – and access to it – changes such a worldview. Reading helps support the inquisitive mind of the individual human to discover new ways of looking at the world. As John Steinbeck wrote:
“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”
So, let’s make the case to help prisoners free their minds through books; let’s make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons. Through prison libraries and reading groups, it might be possible to create an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world.