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

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 

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood