Let’s Art-iculate #8: Books Behind Bars

The terms of prisoner sentences often spark controversy within the public. The idea that prison is for punishment leads many to think prisoner’s sentences should be served in a state of exclusion and isolation from any outside amenities such as televisions, films, art and literature. Other people, however, feel prison is a time to reform the convicted through the access to wider materials that will help the prisoner to ‘better’ his/her character.

Personally I take the approach of prison to be used as a time of reform. Prisoners are are, in most cases, going to re-join society and when that happens it is important they can slot back into society effectively. Psychiatrists and academics such as Jakov Zloore and Seena Fazel have been observing prisoners in the period after their release, and have shown that ‘released prisoners are at increased risk for death following release from prison, particularly in the early period’ of around two weeks. It is common for prisoners to experience depression and psychiatric disorders along with drug abuse that affect their ability to regain a place in society after release leading to their alienation and subsequent feeling of death as the best option.

It is my belief that the inclusive access to literature throughout a prisoner’s sentence will enable them to feel connected to the world and wider issues whilst also giving a strong perspective on issues that may help them with depression and other mental illnesses.  Books have the power to teach, hence the meticulous selection of ‘appropriate’ GCSE and A level texts that teach students more than the basis of a good plot. This demonstration through words should be an essential part of the prisoner’s reform. The opening of a book gives time for self-reflection but also has the ability to open up wider topics in conversation. This would be essential for any prisoner wanting to reconnect themselves with society, giving them something more than their recent history to talk about. Essentially it would guide them into becoming a more enhanced, knowledgeable and understanding person.

“Literature invokes thoughts, feelings and changes of opinion no matter what age or situation one is in”

However, the censorship of this literature does come into question. Books such as Lolita or The Collector could be deemed as highly inappropriate for prisoners convicted of rape, paedophilia or kidnap. These forms of literature could exacerbate feelings and only goad them, meaning the prisoner may pose more of a threat to society when released. The question, therefore, is should they only be subjected to ‘safe’ literature such as A Christmas Carol that conveys a very obvious message of reform?

 I don’t think any book should be excluded from prison libraries. Having read a range of literature I believe reading a novel whose plot mirrors ones own can have the affect of enabling the reader to step back from their own actions, giving a new perspective. If these prisoners want to read, they should be allowed to read what they desire. Reform comes from a wide range of places and a prisoner shouldn’t be excluded from the opportunity to find that reform in literature.

The reading and discussing of literary topics will potentially relieve suicidal feelings often exacerbated by loneliness through the connection it would give to the outside world, ensuring the prisoner would not be overwhelmed when joining society but giving them a strong foundation to understand and appreciate it.

Literature invokes thoughts, feelings and changes of opinion no matter what age or situation one is in. It should be a right for everyone to experience Bronte’s love stories, Dickens’ harsh world and Blake’s reflective poems. Whether in prison or not it is a right: a right to learn, teach, reflect and become connected with the world around us.

Rachael Maltby 

Image: Janaina C. Falkiewicz via Flickr

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