Op-Ed re: Books Behind Bars

books behind bars

By Mark Olmsted, Los Angeles, CA

In response to an article in the Washington Post about the increasing curtailment of book privileges in prison, I wrote this Op-Ed. They didn’t use it, but that’s okay. It was definitely a long shot.

When I was in prison in 2004, I was gratified by seeing one thing at least; many prisoners were voracious readers. I read more there than I had in years – Pat Conroy’s Beach Music (inexplicably banned in Texas, now) got me through three weeks in protective custody, along with Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. It’s only a slight understatement to say they saved my sanity those particular harsh weeks, and fortified my intention to become a published author when I was released.

A few years later, I entered a graduate program in the Humanities at Mount St. Mary’s University, and ended up writing a paper comparing two famous prisoners in history, Oscar Wilde, and the Roman philosopher, Boethius – men who had both fallen from great heights. Wilde wrote this of being transported from one prison to another:

On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at.  Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

and Boethius, this:

This only will I say, that the most crushing of misfortune’s burdens is, that as soon as a charge is fastened upon the unhappy, they are believed to have deserved their sufferings.

Both men are noting that the markers of punishment create the perception of guilt, regardless of its actual merit. The crowd will jeer, in essence, because they want to further punish the punished not for their original crime, but for the crime of being punished itself.

It strikes me that this current public bloodlust, so primed by the pump of Trumpism, is at the root of the current backlash against the incarcerated receiving too many or the “wrong” kind of books.  It’s not enough to deprive them of their freedom and family for a period of time that is often completely divorced from the severity of the crime. They need to be further punished for the simple fact of being behind bars. How dare they make us uncomfortable – that’s why we put them in deserts and rural areas, hoping to forget they are there. Isolation half works – it is devastating for inmates. I knew many men who never received one visit or one piece of mail.

But almost everyone read. In the midst of a book, you can truly forget you are in prison And for most of these guys, it provided the closest thing to an education they’d ever had. Many of them had never made it through high school, much less an 11th grade English reading list. Victor Hugo wrote: “He who opens a school, closes a prison.” Modern American society dropped that ball, at the very least it can try to turn prisons into schools.

Books are the cheapest from of rehabilitation imaginable. To make it harder for the incarcerated to access them is truly cruel and unusual punishment, and even worse, incredibly stupid public policy.