Books offer hope for prisoners
Prisoners in Brazil can now shorten their sentences by reading… and books play a big part in UK prisons too
Brazil has launched a new initiative to combat the overcrowding in their prisons. The programme, Redemption through Reading, will offer prisoners a chance to shorten their sentence by four days for every book they read.
Prisoners will be able to trim a maximum of 48 days off their sentence by reading up to 12 literature, science or philosophy books. They will be given up to four weeks to complete each book and will also have to write an accompanying essay.
Reading in prison is also proving popular in the UK. The Prison Reading Group project, a partnership between the University of Roehampton and the Prisoners’ Education Trust, currently supports 25 groups in a variety of penal institutions. The project has proved popular with authors, with visits from Boris Johnson, Phillip Pullman and Penelope Lively to name but a few. The Prison Reading Group quoted it’s members as saying that, “In Book Group everyone is given a voice,” while a prison librarian added: “Books are great for exploring sensitive issues and learning about life.”
A recent title enjoyed by a London prison group was The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara’s memoirs of his time before the Cuban revolution, in which he travels around South America on a motorcycle. A men’s group in the south-east, meanwhile, read Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, the tale of a young girl growing up in Bougainville who revels in of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Non-fiction proved particularly popular with a women’s group, also based in the south-east – Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth’s 1950s memoir of London life, was a favourite as it “brought back family memories”.
English PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists), a freedom of speech charity, also run their own reading scheme for prisoners. The Readers and Writers project send a book to inmates to read, and the author visits to discuss their book with prisoners. In 2011, 800 prisoners took part in the scheme. Meg Rosoff, author How I Live Now, has described her visits to Holloway as vibrant and engaging.
And there are opportunities for those re-entering society too. Goldsmiths University run Open Book, a scheme aimed at supporting and recruiting individuals from offending backgrounds which runs weekly courses in creative writing, drama and philosophy. One previous student commented that “The Open Book project [helped me to] complete a history degree.”
In an example that might teach council and the government some lessons, while membership to libraries is declining, Edinburgh Prison Library’s membership is soaring. In 2008, the library was refurbished and new books were brought in, since then 50% of prisoners have started taking out books, as opposed to the 5% who previously used the library. In 2010 the library won the Libraries Change Lives Award.
Erwin James, a Guardian columnist who served 20 years of a life sentence, has spoken about reading’s healing powers. He cites that one of his favourite books during his time in prison was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which tells the story of a young Russian intellectual living in abject poverty, Rodya Raskolnikov. Rodya devises a plot to kill Alonya, an elderly pawnbroker, and does so to obtain some money. However, he begins feel remorse, and ultimately find redemption, through his chaste relationship with Sonya, a prostitute with Christian values.
Crime fiction is, unsurprisingly, incredible popular in prison libraries. Martina Cole has been told that he novels are the most borrowed in prison libraries – and the most stolen. Cole herself does considerable work with prisoners.
So Redemption through Reading is a bold move for the Brazilian government. However, Andre Kehdi, a Sao Paulo lawyer, said that, “Without a doubt [prisoners] will leave [prison] a better person” due to the scheme. The projects run for prisoners in the UK to enhance their reading skills would seem to support this sentiment.