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The power of words: in prison, inmates can be transformed by reading

Rene Denfeld, a death penalty investigator and author, describes the power the written word has behind bars.

Unlike the deadly silence elsewhere, there is often a busy buzz in the prison library. Photo: Getty
Unlike the deadly silence elsewhere, there is often a busy buzz in the prison library. Photo: Getty

Prisons are quiet places. The myth we see in movies is one of clamoring noise, shouting in the yard.

But the truth is that even the visiting room is marked with silence. There are hushed words, conversations so quiet that one cannot overhear a word. Even the wee tots, visiting their dads, have learned to hang on silence.

In my work as a death penalty investigator, I’ve spent a lot of time in prisons. They vary from modern complexes to ancient stone fortresses.

But the one thing they all have common is that deadly silence.

The reason goes deeper than crowd control. Men in prisons are generally men without words. Many are illiterate. They have few visions of the world beyond the ones they grew up in—inchoate places of poverty, abuse and drugs.

They learned to speak with actions. Which is often why they are there.

One thing breaks that silence. It is the sound of the book cart, wheeling across the visiting room, or down the halls. There is a busy buzz in the prison library, too, where men with gray in their sideburns can sit and study a children’s book without censure.

What happens when inmates learn to read?

They get excited.

I’ve seen it many times. The once sullen man across from me suddenly opens up, and the words—new words—come tumbling out. He tells me all about what he is reading. It might be the Bible. For many inmates, the path of words takes them right into religion. It might be a letter from his mom. Or that high school class he always meant to take.

Are books a dangerous thing? I don’t think so. It is anger that makes men riot; it is hopelessness that leads them to commit the same crimes again once free, only to return.
 
I’ve seen inmates transformed by reading. The fearful find solace. The addicted find books on sobriety. The angry find a—legal—cause. Through books they learn that there is a world outside the bars. There are places to visit, jobs to get, dreams to fulfill. 

Suddenly, the world they came from seems small and sad. They want their own children to succeed. In the visiting room, they now have voices to tell their tots about their dreams for them. They warn them not to make the same mistakes.

Books teach inmates the concepts that make men free—ideals of free choice and will, the values inherent in faith, the sanctity of life.

They learn the words that can give jubilant voice to the silence, the words that can carry us all into a better future.  

Rene Denfeld is the author of the novel The Enchanted published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99