How the State, Prisons, and Guards Keep Books from Incarcerated People
Though education in prison lowers recidivism, censorship of materials is common.
By Danielle Corcione – December 14, 2018
Photo by Mayall/ullstein bild via Getty Images
In September 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced it would put a halt to book donation programs, mail-order books, and publications for incarcerated people housed in state prisons. Although the restrictive policy has since been reversed, there are still concerns among those who run the programs and people behind bars.
This, of course, isn’t the first time prisons have restricted books. Just like school districts and universities, books and other reading materials sent to incarcerated people through a state’s Departments of Corrections are regularly censored. Often, individual prison staff are responsible for monitoring the influx of materials, which they can often reject or deny at their discretion. The practice inhibits knowledge about gender, sexuality, health, and many other important topics to those behind bars. While the specific guidelines vary from state to state, and even prison to prison, the United States houses 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails in addition to military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons, according to a 2018 report by Prison Policy Initiative.
Books can be lifelines for many people in prison. Books can be a person’s only contact with the world outside of prison, especially if they’re no longer in touch with family or friends. Additionally, books provide important information to incarcerated people who already have limited resources, whether it’s legal or health information. For incarcerated queer and trans people, for instance, books can provide credible sex education as well as legal information regarding trans care.
To better understand the issue, Teen Vogue spoke to organizers involved with prison book-giving programs, including the Asheville, North Carolina-based Tranzmission; Austin, Texas-based Inside Books Project; and Madison, Wisconsin-based LGBT Books to Prisoners — organizations that help incarcerated people get access to publications. We also chatted with an incarcerated person in Texas about his experience with restrictive conditions.
Grier Low, who has been organizing with Tranzmission for the past seven years, says books will be rejected by prison staff for various reasons, such as “individual state restrictions, restrictions at the specific facility, and personal bias of the mail room staff.”
In October, Truth Out reported that the Uptown People’s Law Center and the MacArthur Justice Center of Illinois sued the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) director on behalf of LGBTQ prison abolition organization Black & Pink, claiming Illinois prisons “have adopted and implemented discriminatory mail policies and practices prohibiting delivery of Black & Pink publications and other written forms of speech, including greeting cards and chapter updates.” Truth Out also reported that when reached for comment, a media administrator for IDOC said in an email that “the publication has not been banned at any IDOC facilities,” but noted that it wasn’t clear which publication was being referred to, and that further communication to the IDOC had not been responded to at the time of publication. (Teen Vogue also reached out for comment to IDOC’s media administrator, who would not comment on the allegations, and directed Teen Vogue to send a Freedom of Information act request to obtain a list of publications at IDOC.) This allegation echoes a similar ban on publications that “promote homosexuality,” enacted in 2016 by the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, which was quickly overturned, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
“The one [reason] we see the most returns on are either based on sexually explicit content or because the facility only accepts books from an authorized vendor,” Low tells Teen Vogue.
So if a book isn’t rejected for sexual content, it’s because a prison only accepts books from publishers. That means that you can’t send books from your personal library to your loved ones behind bars. Instead, you’ll have to purchase books from a third party vendor, such as independent book sellers, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon — which can turn into a financial burden for those supporting loved ones behind bars.
But sometimes, books are rejected for ambiguous reasons.
“The most frustrating experiences I have with book rejection is when it’s simply not clear why it was rejected,” Shauna M. Koszegi, an organizer with LGBT Books to Prisoners, tells Teen Vogue. “As a collective, we’ll have to decide whether to send a package to that person again and see what happens, or we might decide that we can’t afford to send books to that prison for a while.”
In 2016, The Guardian reported that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) banned 15,000 different titles, including those written by Langston Hughes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sojourner Truth. While some titles were challenged for containing information about illegal activity or containing explicit language, not every book on the list of more than 15,000 was given a clear explanation.
Meanwhile, TDCJ allows incarcerated people to read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism.
“Texas bans a huge amount of materials, especially [those] based on ‘criminal sexual deviance,’ which is often applied to queer texts, anything that could promote or ‘achieve the breakdown of prisons’ — mainly meaning historical books on Texas prison abuses, civil rights, strikes, and labor organizing happening within units — and books that are ‘racially inflammatory,’” Aems E., a community archivist for the Inside Books Project, tells Teen Vogue. “This has been used to ban civil rights texts, histories of race relations in the U.S., and use of racial slurs in historical contexts.”
However, Aems stresses that a common misconception about banned books in the state is that the TDJC has a transparent list of those titles. While they admit they may have some version of a list, they explain, “the application of censorship is much more arbitrary, opaque, and insidious than a list.”
“Often we’ll get an overly broad explanation, something like ‘it threatens the order and safety’ of the prison,” Melissa Charenko, who also organizes with LGBT Books to Prisoners, tells Teen Vogue. “This seems like a way to limit reading and knowledge, without any explanation of how the particular book might be harmful. The specific rejections are also mind-boggling: things like ‘map on [page] 376.’ I can’t believe that spending time checking every book is a good use of resources, especially when study after study says that reading and education in prison lowers recidivism.”
Charenko elaborates that the map in question in the aforementioned real-life example was actually in reference to Westeros, a fictional place depicted in the Game of Thrones series, which she says could absolutely “not be used to help people escape, so this seemed particularly draconian.”
Additionally, books are left on banned lists because they remain unchallenged, whether they are inside or outside a prison. In other words, no one has gone through the system to object that a certain book shouldn’t be on the ban list.
“The process is not as arbitrary as it appears, but because it is left to the discretion of the mail room supervisor,” Geremy Sledge, who is currently incarcerated at a state men’s prison in Texas, tells Teen Vogue in a letter. “Something I learned is, many books are placed on the permanent ban list because it wasn’t appealed once somewhere in the system.”
With so many book bans left unchallenged, there is still a fight for justice to be made on behalf of incarcerated readers. On November 1, the restrictive policy in Pennsylvania was reversed after a coalition of local opponents sued.
When restrictive policies are in place, it’s crucial to vocally oppose them — not just in your communities, but to your elected officials. But if these policies don’t yet exist where you live, support incarcerated people’s right to read by volunteering and donating to book exchange programs in your area, like Books Through Bars Philly, the Appalachian Book Project, Books Through Bars NYC, and Books to Prisoners.
Editor’s note: The author of this piece has previously made small financial contributions to LGBT Books to Prisoners and Tranzmission.
Books Behind Bars: The Right to Read in Prison
By Lauren Truong|May 9th, 2019
In March, the Washington Department of Corrections issued a new policy banning nonprofit organizations from donating used books to prisoners. After public outcry, the department reversed the ban and scheduled a meeting with Books to Prisoners, a Seattle nonprofit. The outcome has not been made public.
Federal courts have repeatedly affirmed that prisoners have a First Amendment right to read, and publishers and others have a right to send them reading materials. While those rights can be restricted in the interest of security, blocking the free flow of ideas serves no penological purpose. Proponents of stricter controls on the books available to incarcerated readers argue that some information is inherently dangerous, but the First Amendment is designed to prohibit the suppression of information.
The Washington State policy is one amongst many infringements on the free expression rights of inmates in the US. In many states, Departments of Corrections have strict guidelines on what types of books incarcerated folks are and aren’t allowed to read. These guidelines tend to be worded broadly, allowing varied interpretations and resulting in sweeping book bans. While bans are often instituted in the name of security, many are simple abuses of power in order to censor inmates’ access to information.
Books featuring sexual content and nudity are frequently restricted. Prohibiting books that contain sexual content prevents inmates from accessing classics such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A total ban on nudity includes books on figure drawing, magazines about art and art history, and books on human anatomy.
A 2011 report by the Texas Civil Rights Project shows just how arbitrary banned books lists in prisons can be. Among the 12,000 books prohibited by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice: History of Black America by Howard Lindsey; Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men by Rus Ervin Frank; and Why Me? Help for Victims of Child Sexual Abuse Even if They Are Adults Now by Lynn Daugherty.
Why should we care?
Access to books plays a huge role in rehabilitation. Prison literacy programs have been shown to improve inmate behavior and lead to lower recidivism rates. Additionally, many prison education programs regularly face steep budget cuts. Allowing prisoners access to books provides low-cost educational alternatives, in addition to rehabilitative benefits.
Most importantly, however, books can offer the same sense of hope and connection to incarcerated readers as they offer to all readers. While incarcerated, inmates have limited access to the Internet and other ways to connect to society beyond the prison’s walls. Many prisoners report feeling dehumanized. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stated:
When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.
Access to a wide range of books offers prisoners a chance to learn, explore their interests and reconnect to the humanity so often stripped of them by the prison system. It offers a chance to discuss stories and reflect on their own lives. It offers a chance to grow and to explore ideas. It offers a chance to prepare for life after prison, beyond prison.
In a nation that prides itself on its freedoms, denying prisoners the right to read is hypocritical. Reading and accessing information is among our most basic freedoms, and everyone, including prisoners, should be able to exercise that right.
Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out
It’s a Thursday in early June as a cart laden with books is pushed down the corridors of the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC), one of the correctional facilities on New York’s Rikers Island.
The library may consist only of a small storeroom of books and a cart, attended by Nicholas Higgins, supervising librarian of the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Correctional Services Program (CSP); Luis Torres, a NYPL information assistant; and several volunteers, but library service to the inmates of GRVC is definitely welcome.
The CSP cart visits two units in GRVC, 17A and 17B. As the B side inmates are served first, an inmate in A admonishes B to hurry up. As B takes its time, the A side’s calls become more insistent.
After the rounds, as the cart nears the small storage room that holds CSP’s books and magazines, an inmate declares, “Y’all don’t come to my house. This is the only place I can catch you.” The inmate looks forward to obtaining National Geographic.
In Higgins’s view, providing library service to inmates and those returning from prison is fulfilling the democratic mission of the public library because it allows “a wholly segregated group of people” access to information that most Americans take for granted.
“There are definitely people there who want to better themselves but have not had the opportunity,” Torres says later. He notes that Rikers does contain inmates who are interested in doing little more than waiting for their day at trial or waiting out a short sentence (Rikers houses some ten separate jails but does not hold longer-term prisoners). However, many inmates, he thinks, have not spent much time in libraries, and CSP’s service provides a chance to start learning what the library can offer.
CSP can only reach a limited number of inmates, but Higgins says Rikers’s leadership is cooperative. Acknowledging the need for public safety, he and CSP make it a point to be “as flexible as possible” in working with corrections officials.
Since that day in June, Higgins has become associate director for community outreach for NYPL. Credited with expanding CSP’s service, he wants to move services to prisoners and returning inmates from the “margins” to being an integral part of public library service. Now, he oversees outreach to hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. He sees an opportunity to reach ex-offenders in shelters, noting the correlation that often exists between homelessness and having been incarcerated.
Forging public-prison cooperation
Nearly 1.6 million people were in federal or state prisons in 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. City and county jails are also full of people. Though there are increasingly vocal calls to reevaluate stiff sentencing for less serious crimes, this is unlikely to cause a dramatic decline in prisoners anytime soon. Meanwhile, each day, thousands return to their communities from some form of incarceration.
What is changing is a growing realization that more public, prison, and jail libraries can better identify and serve the often significant needs of inmates or those prisoners who are returning to their communities. Not only are some libraries providing books, they are providing innovative programs and services, helping inmates and returnees to learn about work and employment opportunities, the arts (see sidebar, “Arts on the Inside“), and to develop job-seeking skills.
In the view of Daniel Marcou, correctional librarian, Hennepin County Library (HCL), MN, public and prison libraries should be striving to ease the reentry of inmates returning to their communities. “From a community safety perspective, helping people [who are or who had been in prison] make positive changes is important,” Marcou insists.
Hennepin County’s Freedom Ticket
Hennepin, like NYPL’s CSP and many prison libraries, has programs to instruct and help encourage inmates who are parents to read to their children. One goal here is to help prevent the children from following in the footsteps of their parents.
Likewise, Marcou believes it is important to address employment issues of returning inmates since being able to obtain and hold jobs is a crucial factor in achieving successful reentry, and helping former prisoners improve their literacy and job search skills is crucial to helping them get work.
A telling aspect of HCL’s program is Marcou’s branding of it as a “freedom ticket.” In part, he based the name on an anecdote in William Miller’s children’s book Richard Wright and the Library Card (1999). Wright, growing up in the segregated South, considered books to be “a ticket to freedom.” But there is more to the selection of the name, Marcou explains: “Freedom is probably the most valued word inside a corrections facility. I wanted to convey to the residents that reading and information can help to free us all from our past or places where we might not want to be in life. And the ticket, of course, is a library card so that you can use the library.”
This led to Marcou’s initiation of the Freedom Ticket blog, which showcases organizations and services offered by governmental agencies and nonprofits that can help returned inmates. Residents of Hennepin County’s correctional facilities receive a print version of The Freedom Ticket newsletter quarterly.
A welcoming library
An online orientation video (also available on DVD) assures returning offenders that they will be “treated with dignity and respect” by library staff. Taking advantage of HCL’s resources and services dealing with education, employment, and health can help returning inmates to “make positive changes” in their lives. A foldout map-like “Going Home” guide lists HCL locations and resources “people leaving corrections facilities” can access to obtain assistance with employment, education, housing, health, and family matters.
HCL in partnership with Goodwill Easter Seals also offers a program called “World of Work” at its North Regional Library to help ex-offenders with job searches, training location, résumés, and interview skills.
However, Marcou knows that many people who return from incarceration are interested in developing their own businesses, such as landscaping or cleaning, and raises this issue at the job workshops he delivers at the county and state corrections facilities. He has invited a community librarian to deliver a talk on self-employment resources and programs to residents of the county’s Adult Corrections Facility (ACF).
Marcou advises prisoners and those who’ve returned from prison to have a steady “day job,” if possible, but suggests that developing self-employment to provide several income sources makes sense in case of a layoff. He also considers self-employment to be “an enormously self-empowering option. Most folks who have hustled on street corners have strong transferable skills in terms of legitimate work and self-employment.”
Every week, Marcou and his coworker Renée Hasse visit the Hennepin County ACF to provide inmates with requested information and books and magazines as well as manage the collection at the on-site library facilities.
ACF reentry and education staff and volunteers assist facility residents with the use of the resource room to search for education- or employment-related information. The computers are connected to the library’s network, and filters have been adjusted to create safe Internet access to appropriate websites for reentry information needs. One of the many benefits is the direct exposure to the HCL website and increased awareness for the facility residents of all the online resources it has. HCL plans to provide more digital literacy instruction at the facility in the future.
San Diego reintegration
Hildie Kraus, branch manager of the Bonita-Sunnyside branch of the San Diego County Library (SDCL), shares Marcou’s concern about helping inmates and former inmates sharpen their job skills.
California’s overcrowded prisons are seeking to reduce their populations, which makes “rehabilitation, reentry, and reintegration” of the utmost importance, according to Kraus.
“A major component of all of these is getting a job,” she explained in a presentation to California librarians about her “Welcome Back: Ex-Offenders Rejoin the Workforce” training sessions held in summer 2011.
Kraus was working in SDCL’s El Cajon branch when a heavily tattooed man who’d been “inside” admitted he was unable to use a computer to obtain a library card. Inspired in part by that incident, Kraus started attending monthly Parole and Community Team (PACT) meetings sponsored by the California Department of Corrections to inform recent parolees about community services and resources.
Kraus’s own surveys of PACT attendees showed that they were eager to develop their job search, computer, and interview skills. Obtaining an in-kind contribution from SDCL, a $5,000 Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) grant, and smaller grants from the library friends and the SDCL administration, Kraus established two month-long training sessions in July and August 2011.
The funds covered payments for flash drives, substitute staffing for Kraus and her assistant instructor, job-readiness trainers, and literature on reentry, résumés, and interview skills.
Still, the program remains something of a niche service. Expecting over 20 participants, only one person showed up for the first class. Eventually, between four to six people were participating regularly. A total of 22 people attended, some graduating from the first session, then returning for classes during the second session.
“Most were eager to learn,” says Kraus. “Many were consistent in attendance.”
Yet many participants would come when they could and Kraus, taking into account their different needs and skill levels, would provide the instruction they needed rather than falling back on her initial, more structured lesson plans. Kraus says “being flexible” in instruction is important.
Two job-readiness trainers spent hours coaching participants in how to be effective in a job interview. A high school intern videotaped the participants, who found it useful to see their body language and their responses to issues such as gaps in their résumés.
Participants in post-program surveys showed they all knew more about computers, had developed résumés, and had applied for jobs online. They felt more confident about going employment. Kraus notes the program cost only $11,000; maintaining a single person in a California prison costs nearly $50,000 annually. “So if one person from this program doesn’t go back to prison—you do the math,” she said, closing her presentation.
Preparing to measure success
“It’s all about reentry, reentry, reentry—that’s why we do what we do.” insists Diane Walden, coordinator of institutional library development (ILD) for the Colorado State Library.
Walden credits Diana Reese, her recently retired predecessor, with focusing on improving quality during her tenure as coordinator of prison libraries. (See also sidebar “Colorado Standards.”)
Colorado’s prison library program is a unique collaboration between the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), which includes the state library, and the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), which administers libraries in state correctional institutions. ILD’s coordinator and the two regional librarians who advise state prisons must be trained in CDOC procedures and are actually housed at state prisons and expected to participate in facility operations, such as lockdowns.
ILD continuously audits prison libraries, whereas the American Correctional Association (ACA) audits the state’s prisons every three years as part of its accreditation process. ILD makes sure CDOC’s librarians are trained to carry out the policies, and its regular presence in prison libraries helps to provide prisons with well-designed libraries and to advance innovation. Adrienne Breznau, CDOC librarian at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF), describes the relationship between CDOC librarians and ILD this way: “I’m the boss of the library, and they are the boss of policy.”
Colorado’s ILD was credited recently in Corrections Today, the magazine of the ACA, with launching “ground-breaking initiatives” such as intranet training of prison library staff and an online library management system, which provides inmates with access to an online catalog but which is customized to prevent inmates from using features such as email.
Reese suggests Colorado’s state prison libraries are notable in part for using a “public library model.” (ILD is not involved with the prison law libraries.) As Breznau says, “Our patrons have the same information needs as patrons in public libraries.”
Walden recalls a review of prison libraries that showed a lack of reentry-related materials such as those addressing job search issues, improving family relations, increasing financial literacy, dealing with addictions—all things that help to curb recidivism. The response designed to meet these needs was branded as “Out for Life.”
While formal classes at CDOC prisons stress reentry issues, the Colorado State Library’s Walden notes not every prisoner likes or seeks out classroom learning opportunities, but they will use the library and can be reached that way.
Prison libraries, says Walden, are in a “unique position” to reach inmates through reentry materials and programming.
Equipping tools for financial literacy
Alongside the self-improvement tools and preparation these programs offer, there is an important self-protection element as well. DWCF librarian Breznau says many inmates can fall prey to online get-rich-quick scams. “My job is to turn them away from information sources from people trying to scam them.”
A positive solution is to provide financial literacy programs as Renée Robbins and Janice Chiaro decided to do a few years ago when brainstorming ideas for potential programs at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility (CTCF).
They arranged for a guest speaker from Wells Fargo Bank to address the inmates. Robbins added the Wells Fargo CD-ROM on financial literacy, called “Hands on Banking,” to the library computer loaded with reference and skill-building software.
At least 30 inmates started the program; approximately half were able to complete it. Inmates averaging 80 percent on all modules received certificates for completing the program. Robbins says some lost interest, but many inmates considered the program valuable.
“There were offenders who rarely used the library but who came to complete the program because they saw it as something they needed,” Robbins recalls. That provided an opening for library staff to demonstrate how the prison library could help them obtain information that would be useful to prepare for their release. “At every opportunity,” says Robbins, “we encouraged [the inmates] to use their public libraries” upon returning to their communities.
Robbins insists that a program such as the one implemented on financial literacy at CTCF is a boon to inmates. The prison library, she says, is the best place to offer such sessions because it is “open for anyone to use” and inmates realize their staffs “want to help their patrons succeed” once they leave prison.
Denver reaching out
Back in 2008, the Colorado State Library’s Walden had delivered a talk with then-ILD staff member Erica MacCreaigh and two others at a Colorado Association of Libraries conference on “Life After 20-to-Life” that urged greater public library programming aimed at people returned from prison. Melanie Colletti, a student in library science at the University of Denver, heard the presentation and found herself “amazed” at the scarcity of library services available to ex-offenders. She helped to create a resource guide for inmates returning to their communities to find services of use to them.
Working at the Community Technology Center (CTC) at the Denver Public Library, Colletti and a former supervisor, Megan Kinney, now director of library services at Community College of Aurora who shared the interest in outreach to ex-offenders, developed the “Free To Learn” (FTL) program. The program provides free space for former inmates who are often residents in transitional houses and helps them to learn computer and Internet skills that often are not taught in prisons. The program is staged just for returning inmates in part because some halfway houses require verification of the location of their charges. In such cases, FTL will call the halfway houses to let them know who is attending.
Colletti collaborates with librarians at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, delivering regular talks there about the Free To Learn program and other DPL offerings. She visits half-way houses to meet with residents and staff. One participant said, “I’m not comfortable in groups of people.” Colleti tells prison and half-way house residents to ask for her by name to help put them at ease.
“When I see people face-to-face and tell them it is okay to come to the library and ask for me, that helps to defuse some of that embarrassment.” says Colletti.
Colletti’s statistics from FTL’s first year show 78 percent of the women completed job applications during their sessions.
Breznau of DWCF stresses the need for partnerships between prison and public libraries. When inmates are free, she insists, they should be able to obtain “the same quality of help” for their unique information needs from public libraries that they receive from prison libraries and staffs.
New challenge for libraries
The Pew Center on the States’ 2011 report, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” notes that at least 95 percent of prisoners ultimately will be returning to their communities after incarceration. Policymakers are increasingly aware that “aggressive recidivism reduction is a smarter approach to curbing corrections costs and protecting public safety.” It cautions that besides a prison record, people returning from prison often have great needs stemming from poor education and lack of effective life skills.
Stronger efforts by prison and public libraries to help prisoners and people returning from prison to their communities can help them start to narrow those gaps. Glennor Shirley, retired coordinator for Maryland’s prison libraries, hopes public libraries and prison administrations and their libraries will work in partnership more. More librarians share Shirley’s views. Rhode Island Department of Corrections librarian Loretta M. Cimini in a presentation last year to the Rhode Island Library Association expressed hope that public libraries will better serve one of the most “under the radar” groups—released inmates.
Shirley declares, “Very few [public libraries] have proactively done outreach or programming in prisons. This is a lost opportunity to help inmates to reenter society successfully. Working in partnership, prison and public libraries can have a positive impact on prisoners, their families, and public safety and help to build stronger communities.”
Arts on the Inside
Most librarians know that Hamlet avenges the death of his father, the king, by killing his uncle, Claudius. However, thanks to some surprising interventions, Claudius sometimes avoids this patricidal fate.
When Laura Bates, professor of English literature at Indiana University, started a program called “Shakespeare in Shackles” for inmates placed in segregation at the state-run Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, she created a small circulating library devoted to the Bard’s works. Prisoners in segregation—because of their violent behavior—have few privileges, according to Bates, including access to general library services.
Bates details how one inmate in solitary, Larry Newton, benefitted from participating in her classes exploring Shakespeare in a forthcoming book, Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard (Sourcebooks, Apr. 2013).
Prisoners read and discuss the plays. Inmates, many of whom lack strong academic records, often warm up to the challenge of learning the plays written by the intellectually demanding playwright. More than that, Bates asserts, many prisoners discover, sometimes to their surprise, that the questions posed by Shakespeare’s centuries-old plays may be more relevant than many would assume. Newton is quoted in Shakespeare Saved My Life: “The more insight you get into Shakespeare’s characters, the more insight you get into your own character.”
Frequently, inmates will rewrite the plays to reflect their own changing perspectives. For example, Hamlet may spare Claudius’s life as prisoners reconsider their own thirst for vengeance.
Not every prisoner can be changed via humanities intervention, but Bates has met those who say they have not killed thanks in large part to exposure to works like Shakespeare’s plays. She says there should be a place for arts and literature programs in prisons and jails and their libraries.
Mark Aldrich, a librarian at Connecticut’s Garner Correctional Institution, a state-run high-security prison, concurs.
Aldrich coteaches playwriting and performance classes for inmates. When a class ends, inmates write and produce their own plays before audiences that have included the staff of a local literary magazine, prison and school officials, and businesspeople. Plays written by students in Aldrich’s writing classes include one dealing with a discussion between a father who had been incarcerated and his estranged son and another with a job interview between a just-released inmate and a recovering alcoholic.
As a master’s degree candidate in applied theater at the City University of New York (CUNY), Aldrich also brings fellow classmates to help with the prison theater group, the Garner Players. One session conducted by fellow classmates had inmates consider how maleness should be defined in prison. The games and exercises that occurred led to the inmates improvising short scenes that would later move on to the development of full plays.
Aldrich delivered a talk on “The Rehabilitation Potential of Applied Theatre” at a conference held earlier this year by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In a paper, Aldrich asserted that simply participating in plays or visiting the library will not curb recidivism. “But what I am suggesting,” he wrote, “is that a consistent, steady commitment to a physically and emotionally safe place with institutional support in which individuals are treated fairly and with respect, and are given an opportunity to participate in their own education, is a start.” That applies to his work in Garner’s library and with his playwriting and performance classes.
Massachusetts’s Department of Correction created a program called Able Minds (Altering Behaviors Through Literary Exploration and Moderated Inquiry-based Discussion Sessions) back in the mid-1990s that is now administered by its prison libraries. State prison librarians in Massachusetts offer all kinds of programming, ranging from poetry groups to regular book discussions. Able Minds is notable for attempting to use literature to inspire inmates to consider making long-term behavioral changes through a ten-step process called Think First that starts by asking participants to assess their situation and ends by having them take action to accomplish self-identified goals.
Inmates, often judged to be high-risk, read books and plays such as Ben Joravsky’s Hoop Dreams, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Able Minds discussions take place in an eight-week consecutive course. The first seven sessions are one-hour chats. One book is read per week, and librarians link those books with the Think First steps, promoting personal reflection. The eighth week is two hours long, and inmates receive certificates for completing the program and review what they’ve learned.
Ally Dowds, librarian at Massachusetts’s Bay State Correctional Center, explains that she chooses books based on a balance of readability, literary quality, and content. Often, selections feature “a seriously flawed character” or events and decisions likely to provoke discussion.
“This often ends in the group taking sides, but it also encourages inmates to demonstrate empathy,” explains Dowds. As with Bates’s program, inmates are often pleasantly surprised to learn they are able to read challenging material.
Dowds insists on the beneficial effects of the process. Inmates are able to “break down the walls” of the seriously flawed character and then “break down the walls” regarding their own “faults and failures.” Participating in Able Minds can force inmates to realize the destructive choices they made, their toll on themselves and others, and consider making positive changes.
In an email, Aldrich added that arts and literature programs aimed at inmates can help them to rethink their past lives and what kind of damage they inflicted on their own communities. Arts and literature programming for inmates and those who are reentering the community can create “a connection to community that makes this possible.”