• The Danger of Limiting Literature: On Books in Prison

    Earlier this week, New York state made an announcement that threatens intellectual freedom: the launch of a pilot program that will severely restrict inmates’ access to books. In an effort to enhance security, Directive 4911A, or “The Secure Vendor Program,” details strict rules regarding the types of items inmates may receive by restricting packages to only those sent by a list of five pre-approved vendors. Under this directive, inmates will have access to just 77 books: 24 coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 14 religious texts, 11 how-to books, five romance novels, a dictionary, and a thesaurus.

    According to The Department of Corrections and Community Services, the new directive will “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program.” The program is set to begin at Greene Correctional Facility, Green Haven Correctional Facility, and Taconic Correctional Facility, with plans for statewide implementation this fall.

    Not only does this qualify as cruel and unusual punishment — some might even say abuse — but it’s detrimental to our society as a whole, and certainly threatens the restorative purpose of prison.

    Our prison system ought to be more than an extended time-out. Incarceration’s purpose is rehabilitation: the hope is that, once the time has been served, prisoners can return to society and re-integrate, contributing to society with a renewed sense of purpose. Of course, these are lofty goals, and the re-integration process is a supremely difficult one for many. But shouldn’t the prison system’s goal be to make that transition as easy as possible, to set prisoners up for success? Restricting access to knowledge and art achieves the exact opposite.

    Literature shapes readers by challenging their imaginations and promoting understanding that extends beyond our limited experiences. Research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience illuminate the benefits of reading literature. A 2006 study by professors Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley found exposure to fiction is positively related to sociability and empathy. A 2009 study by the duo examined the relationship between fiction reading and empathy, and suggests that readers are better able to understand social situations and connect with other individuals if they are well-read. This is because fiction helps develop a person’s theory of mind, which informs a person’s mental concept of other people’s motives and behaviors. It helps by creating a sense of community, and showcases societal norms.

    Science supports the belief that literature aids in empathy by helping a reader consider perspectives and experiences outside of their own. Programs such as “Books Through Bars” provide free books to prisoners in seven states through the mail. The non-profit’s aim is to help rehabilitate inmates through literature in order to help ensure a prisoner is better prepared for reintegration into society upon completion of their sentence.

    The prisons participating in the pilot of this program include a medium security men’s prison, a medium security women’s prison, and a maximum security men’s prison. All of these prisoners ought to have access to reading material that inspires and informs. They, like us, deserve to experience other worlds and other lives through great authors like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Milan Kundera, and Gary Shteyngart, or countless others. The empathetic benefits can greatly impact inmates who are approaching their parole or release dates. Prisoners are able to better understand different areas and facets of life — and relate to their fellow man — more effectively if their rehabilitation is filtered through a literary lens during incarceration.

    Inmates sentenced to solitary confinement are particularly vulnerable, and in particular need of access to literature. Sir Thomas Moore wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison for rape. Literature allows for reconsideration. Different behaviors, outcomes, and entire worlds can be imagined through literature that impacts the lives of the very real people who rely on books to help inform their existence.

    What kind of community does this directive aim to produce? Not one, I’d argue, committed to intellectual pursuits, the expansion of the mind, or personal growth. When you’re allowed 77 books, and 45 of those are puzzle and coloring books, the obvious message is: you’re just passing the time here. No need to learn, grow, or expand your understanding — here, just color inside the lines. How can we have any realistic expectation of successful reintegration into society if we actively block them from bettering themselves? This will effectively stifle growth in communities and create stark disparities between community members.

    To deny literature to inmates is dangerous. Whether a person is a prisoner is not the issue because this is a very human issue. If the government is going to restrict prisoners from access to literature, will the policy extend to public schools and university under the same guise of “secure vending”? Part of our responsibility as citizens is to determine whether our actions will make a system stronger or more fragile. Prohibiting access to knowledge reduces the intellectual capacity of our nation as a whole, and serves as another form of captivity. Imprisoning the mind in such a way ought to be considered criminal.