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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.