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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser