PLN editor Paul Wright comments on "The book that changed my life … in prison"
The book that changed my life … in prison
After the governor of New York intervened to lift restrictions on prisoners’ reading materials, five current and former inmates explain what books have meant to them
Last week, thousands of inmates in three New York prisons stopped receiving reading materials from friends and family. Tens of thousands more, at more than 50 prisons across the state, prepared for the same restrictions later in the year.
“It really scares me,” said one inmate at Sing Sing prison, Michael Shane Hale, who relies on books for college courses. He is serving 50 years to life for murder. “It’s like a further way to isolate you.”
The restrictions blocked virtually all packages from friends, family, and even nonprofits like Books Through Bars. Prisoners were told to buy goods from prison private vendors – but because the vendors sold few books, the directive placed heavy demands on congested prison libraries. The state’s top prison official, Anthony J Annucci, said he was trying to prevent drug smuggling, but the policy faced a firestorm of criticism from politicians and the public.
On Friday, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, ordered the state prison system to scrap the restrictions. But Paul Wright, of Prison Legal News, said that his organization had raised legal challenges against prisons in Kentucky, Massachusetts, California, Michigan and Washington state in recent years, all on the grounds that private vendors have restricted inmate access to books.
In the following accounts, five current and former inmates explain what books have meant to them. According to a 2016 report, almost a third of American prisoners have extremely limited reading abilities, if they can read at all. The US imprisons people – especially people of color – at the highest rates in the world, with more than two million inmates currently in custody.
Michael Shane Hale
Man’s Search for Meaning
by Viktor Frankl
A few years ago, Michael Shane Hale met Doris Buffett, the sister of investor Warren Buffett. She had organized a piano concert in the chapel of Auburn correctional facility, in New York state. During her visit, she gave Hale a paperback book: Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of life in Auschwitz by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
“She said the book had helped her, every so often, to get a bearing on the world –what’s important, what’s not important,” said Hale, who is now in Sing Sing prison.
“It was shocking. I’m, like, the piece of shit that took somebody’s life. I’m the lowest of the low. And to have someone who genuinely seems to care about people – to care to fund programs to help society better itself – that was a really amazing moment.”
Hale was blown away by the book, too. “He went through something really horrific, and was able to find this meaning and hope, and bring it out of the situation,” he said of the author. “It gave me the ability to endure. Because in here, you lose hope. This is a very degrading, dehumanizing situation. I remember going downstate, where you’re processed. You’re shaved, your identity is stripped from you. They tear you down, and they don’t build you up into anything.”
When Hale arrived in prison, he hated himself for what he had done. “I really believed in this idea of an eye for an eye. And I really felt like I was responsible for taking somebody’s life. I felt like I should be dead. It still bothers me to this day. I still don’t know how to reconcile having taken someone’s life,” he said.
“I can understand why Doris reads it from time to time, why it helps her find her bearings. The pain and suffering that people go through – there is the possibility that maybe some good can come out of it.”
Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
by Piper Kerman
Chandra Bozelko, a graduate of Princeton University, served six years in prison for 13 felonies, including larceny, forgery and identity theft.
Because there is only one state prison for women in Connecticut, she shared the building with first-degree murderers. Reading and writing helped her imagine a different sort of life. “To live vicariously through the book was important,” she said. “It’s a temporary escape – especially a novel. Because it’s a different person’s life, when yours isn’t great.”
Bozelko liked to read in the evenings, after finishing work shifts in the kitchen. She would lie on her bed and read by the florescent light in her cell, or by the light of a small lamp she purchased in the prison commissary.
Regulations on space made Bozelko unsentimental about individual books. “You were restricted to six cubic feet of space,” she said. “If you were done with a book, you were definitely getting rid of it. Keeping a book was unheard of – except maybe for the Bible.” Many inmates left books in the common area or passed them to friends. Once, Bozelko recommended A Confederacy of Dunces, the comic novel by John Kennedy Toole, to several guards. “Correctional officers would actually take my recommendation, and read it.”
Not long before Bozelko’s release in 2010, Piper Kerman published Orange is the New Black, a memoir about life in a Connecticut federal prison. (The TV show came out three years later.) “That was a big deal – that someone who was in our position got out and wrote a book,” Bozelko said. Many of her fellow prisoners wrote home, asking for a copy. “It was a hot item, to be passed around. I think maybe holding Orange is the New Black may have been more important than actually reading it.”
The State and Revolution
by Vladimir Lenin
In the 1970s, Paul Wright received a cream-colored book, printed by a Chinese publisher, in the prison mail. “They cranked this stuff out by the millions in the 60s and 70s, and shipped them all over the world,” Wright said. It was The State and Revolution, a political manifesto by Vladimir Lenin, sent to him by a Seattle nonprofit called Books to Prisoners. Wright was in prison in Washington state for shooting a drug dealer during a botched stickup.
Despite the book’s controversial contents, it cleared inspections by corrections officers – at first.
“A few weeks later, they searched my cell, they confiscated the book, and they infracted me for having the book that they gave me,” Wright said. As punishment, the guards sent him to a control unit for five days – which enraged him. “The notion that they can give me something, and then punish me for having what they gave me,” he told me. He decided to sue the prison, and to his surprise, he got the book back along with $500 in damages.
When Wright finished books, he’d mail them to friends or family for safekeeping. “That way I’d have them when I got out,” he said. “I had little libraries, kind of, in different parts of the country.” He still has his old copy of The State and Revolution in storage. Lenin’s ideas have stayed with him – especially the notion that nations rely on violence, in the form of the military and law enforcement, for stability. “At the end of the day, the power of the state rests on the police and the army,” said Wright. He worked as a military police officer before his incarceration.
The book helped inspire a lifelong mission: to organize inmates across the country. “Tsarist Russia was a vast territory, and people were isolated,” he said. “In a lot of respects, that was my analogy for the American prison system. You’ve got two and a half million people in cages, but they’re dispersed. These little islands of captivity. How are you going to organize them?”
His answer was a magazine called Prison Legal News, which he founded behind bars in 1990. He continued to publish it even after his release in 2003.
Jimmy Santiago Baca
The Romantic Poets
In the early 1970s, Jimmy Baca was held in an Arizona jail for three months on drug charges. (He later served a five-year sentence in New Mexico.) One day, he was mopping up in the area where officers booked new inmates, and he heard a man screaming. Then he heard a young woman laugh. “Some police had brought in a drunk, and they were kicking him,” Baca recalled.
The laugh came from the booking attendant, a young female college student. “I wanted to get back at her for laughing,” Baca said. So he waited until she left the room. “I put my hands through the bars and grabbed the first thing I could see.” It was a book – an anthology of poetry called The Romantic Poets.
Baca went back to his cell and lit a small fire. “I was cooking up some coffee,” Baca said. “I started tearing pages out of the book. When the flames got high, a couple of words caught my attention. So I quit tearing pages out of the book, and spent the rest of the night trying to figure out what this guy was saying.” He had stumbled across a poem by William Wordsworth. “He referred to several episodes of him walking around a lake, somewhere in England. And it reminded me of my grandfather, walking around the pond. We used to have sheep and we would go water the sheep at the pond. It reminded me of that. So I kept it.”
“I stayed awake all night,” Baca continued. “Those poems, they blew me away. I couldn’t believe that people could use language in a way that would transport me into their mind.”
Soon, Baca was imitating the rhyming verse of the Romantics, and fellow inmates were asking him to write poems that they could send home to their wives and children. Baca has since published dozens of books of poetry.
Charles Robin Woods
East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Charles Robin Woods never finished high school. He taught himself to read while incarcerated in Maryland, first for improper use of a firearm and later for breaking and entering. “For a while, I was going back and reading the classics that I had never read,” he said. He read Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain. “Books that I would have been exposed to in high school.” After Woods participated in a prison riot, he was transferred to a super-maximum security prison. “I spent years and years in there, and had an opportunity to do a lot of reading.”
“The super-max didn’t have a library,” Woods told me. Instead, inmates relied on a nearby penitentiary library, where many books weren’t available. “In those days, if you put in for a book, and they didn’t have it – and a librarian thought you were really dedicated to reading – they would go to an outside library and order the book for you.” Woods tracked down a paperback copy of East of Eden by John Steinbeck. “The character that really drove me to the book was Mr Lee,” Woods said. “Lee was the Chinese guy, and he plays stupid, but he’s very, very intelligent. Very, very well-read.”
Early in the novel, Steinbeck seems to play into the worst stereotypes of Asian Americans. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” Lee says at one point. But later in the book, he reveals that he speaks perfect English. It’s white people who expect him to be simple-minded. “It’s more than a convenience,” Lee explains. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”
In his cell, Woods collected reading materials the way that other inmates collected tennis shoes. This, he realized, was something he shared with Lee. “He had collected all these books,” Woods said. “Mr Lee’s aspiration was to have a bookstore.”