Unless you have friends or family in prison, you likely pay scant attention to what that entails. Policies, procedures, protocols are all a foreign world best left unexplored. “You do the crime, you do the time” is a convenient turning away from the reality of incarcerated life.
But when it’s your loved one there, you find yourself part of the system too.
My friend Eric is serving his sentence at FCI Coleman Low, a low-security federal correctional prison in Sumter County off I-4 near Wildwood. It houses over 2,000 nonviolent inmates in an all-male population.
Inmates can receive visitors and mail but there are many restrictions. Visiting hours are carefully controlled (Sat.-Mon., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. every other week), and visitors have lots of prohibitions about provocative clothing, flip-flops, nothing in khaki or green as that might be confused with the garb of the prison population. Letters to an inmate are tightly monitored, as a way to thwart contraband — white envelopes only (not manila), contents on white paper (not clippings or magazine articles, unless copied onto white paper), nothing adhesive (no address labels or stickers), ink only (no felt-tip), no crayon (thus nothing addressed by children), nothing scented, no lipstick, no external drawings. As for email, inmates can buy access to an online email system called CorrLinks where they can stay in touch with the outside world. Payphones are available at exorbitant rates, but rarely used.
Though I have visited Eric there several times — and it never fails to be a surreal, deer-in-the-headlights experience — our reaching out through books has been a way for us to stay in touch between visits. Of course, I cannot ever give him anything directly, but I can mail paperbacks to him, or have hardbacks sent to him from such outside providers as Amazon or other online booksellers. The increasingly privatized prison system has contracts with only a few specified book providers that make healthy profits selling at a high markup to this confined readership.
Those of us who struggle with a “so many books, so little time” mentality have probably thought, hey, how bad could prison be? All that unstructured time alone in your cell — what a wonderful opportunity to catch up on reading! Reality, of course, lays waste to that silly fantasy. Yes, there is lots of unstructured time. Yes, there are many hours spent alone in a cell. Yes, there are the unending days as the sentence slowly unfolds on the calendar.
So fantasizing about prison time as a remove from the demands of our ordinary lives — just leave me alone and let me read — doesn’t acknowledge the daily, hourly stresses of a constantly controlled and heavily monitored life filled with noise, petty requirements, family separation, lack of medical attention, bullying and worse. So don’t think that prison provides the time and a place to sit back and relax with a good book, as if it were a summer vacation at the beach.
Still, I get it — you do the crime, you do the time. No boo-hooing because Eric can’t have his books.
Apparently Coleman Low has a circulating library, such as it is: mostly adventure-thrillers, true crime, urban novels, and science fiction/fantasy, with well-thumbed copies of Patterson, Baldacci and Connelly. Which would you find more compelling? Stephen King ad nauseam or Proust? There is no Proust in Coleman, though I should think every prisoner would benefit from being totally absorbed into this world of memory and loss, regret and redemption. It took me four years to read the entire series of seven volumes (yes, I did, and I have the dated entries in my Book Log to confirm that) as Proust must be read slowly to absorb those purple passages and transcendent memories. Prison time could be Proust time.
To make prisons “safer,” many books are banned — anything that “threatens prison security.” Texas has over 10,000 books on its banned list, including Freakonomics, Where’s Waldo, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Color Purple. Anything with maps, nudity (art history, or even books with Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Girl” photo), histories of slave rebellions, anything in a foreign language gets tossed. North Carolina recently released a list of over 600 books banned from their state prisons, including Stieg Larrson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, even Andy Goldsworthy’s book of outdoor photography, A Collaboration with Nature.
An ACLU lawsuit managed to overturn a New Jersey and North Carolina prison ban on the recent sociological study by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It describes in detail how the mass jailing of black Americans, particularly black men, functions as part of a race-based program of social control.
This book is still banned in Florida prisons.
Why so many reading restrictions, even as to how many books prisoners can have in their cell at any given time? Often books are passed around from one inmate to another, and that becomes the basis for one-to-one book-club-like discussion among prisoners. Those who are sequestered are indeed being punished — as they should be — but restricting books denies the very rehabilitation, love of learning, and reconnection to the social contract that we hope transpires while in prison. Restricting books does nothing to rehab or reconnect; just the opposite. ACLU’s Michele Luecking-Sunman comments that the vast majority of prisoners “will ultimately be released back into civilian life. So they were your neighbors and members of your community before they went to prison, and they will be again.”
I would rather have neighbors who read, even (or perhaps especially) ex-cons, than neighbors who don’t.
I have suggested books that Eric might find in the prison library, and if not, I can mail to him or have them shipped. Likewise, he has made recommendations to me when he’s encountered a noteworthy book. Ours is a longtime and mutual book-centric friendship, so it’s not surprising that books can bridge this impossible gap between the man inside and the man (and the world) outside.
Eric found Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and after reading it, he recommended it to me. Though I am familiar with Steinbeck, especially his short stories and the classic The Grapes of Wrath, I had not read East of Eden. If any prisoner recommends a book, I will take him at his word and read it. It’s a massive (maybe bloated) novel, an epic, really — a family saga of greed and betrayal, and yes, redemption, so its appeal for readers, behind bars or not, is perfectly understandable. Another book that Eric recommended (and I devoured)? Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a satisfying novel about one man confined under Communist-imposed house arrest in a Moscow grand hotel, but still finding ways to construct a rich life right under the apparatchik’s noses.
Apparently one book that gets passed around a lot in prison is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a psychological memoir of Frankl’s horrific experience in Auschwitz. It’s a meditation on power and control and how his prison camp taught him that life’s primary purpose was the quest for meaning. In examining this “intensification of the inner life,” Frankl identifies three possible sources of life’s meaning: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. Eric read it and said I should too. I found the book a bit of a slog, maybe too much philosophical jargon for my taste, but I should think that prison time would indeed provide lots of meditative space to peruse this quest for meaning. Certainly, there’s something to be said for work, love and courage as a way to find purpose in life, admirable goals for both sides of the bars.
Just as Eric suggests titles for me, I recommend books for him to look for in the prison library, books that speak to the situation he’s now confronting. Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic about a man falsely imprisoned, primarily concerned with the themes of hope, justice, vengeance, mercy and forgiveness, with devastating consequences for both the innocent and the guilty. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has Jean Valjean, prisoner #24601, struggling to survive and redeem himself. Ballad of Reading Gaol is Oscar Wilde’s poetic take on his two years of hard labor, giving us the line “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” At my suggestion, Eric located two prize-winning novels: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, rich with character and atmosphere, and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a dark and bitter satire, and each became the part of a round-robin reading and discussion among inmates. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a thin novel but thick with dystopian, postapocalyptic treatment of a father-son relationship, a theme that rings especially relevant for imprisoned men separated from their children. Shakespeare’s Othello is all about the misguided decisions of a tragic hero who falls prey to his own irrationality, stupidity and greed. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is Salman Rushdie’s account of his 12-year encounter with the Muslim fatwa that condemned him to death for writing The Satanic Verses (also a perfect choice for in-jail reading). He was essentially under self-imposed house arrest, hiding from those who would behead him for what he wrote about the Prophet. Jeanette Winterston’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is a perfect antidote for rising above your circumstances without relying on the typical preachy, schlocky, psychobabbled uplift that’s often welcomed into prison libraries.
I have sent Eric various fiction and nonfiction paperbacks, some specifically incarceration-related, but others more stories of how we can become prisoners of our own bodies or minds. Laura Bates’ Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard is the compelling story of a teacher who began offering Shakespeare courses in a solitary confinement unit at Indiana Federal Prison. Tim Parks’ novel Judge Savage is a page-turner of a novel, written in stream-of-consciousness, about a judge sent to prison for failing to live up to the expected standards of judicial morality. Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a novel about a baby, born neither male nor female but somewhere in between, and lives a lifetime of straddling both. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life provides concrete guidelines for anyone who might be interested in writing about the prison experience from the inside. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir of Books speaks of her experience reading and writing in an Islamic-controlled country and how censorship steals more than just books. Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room is a witty and quirky memoir about a man under house arrest who proceeds to write an entire account of his bedroom and his travels from bed to sofa to mirror. It’s a captivating fantasy and a unique take on travel literature, inspiring no less than Proust to take similar trips of his own. These all seemed appropriate books for the solitude of the cell.
What books would you recommend for someone in prison? What books have provided you sanctuary, retreat, insight, purpose, transformation?
Contact Books Through Bars Books Through Bars) or Books2Prisons and get those copies sent out today.
Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are film, theater, books, and kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.