When I was a teenager, my father and I shared books. We didn’t share the physical copy, at least not often—my dad was serving a ten-year sentence in California, and I was at school in Bath, England—but we did share the imaginary landscape offered within its pages, a place we could occupy together from afar.
I would find the books Dad was reading in my local library branch. Wilbur Smith’s The River God, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, a handful of Michael Crichton novels—the books themselves didn’t matter. While I curled up with my library-stamped copy of The River God before bed, he was reading his, 5,000 miles away in his prison bunk. These words offered a point of connection between us, when there were few others to be found, and, for him, a touchstone to the world outside, the world he would one day rejoin …
… Some prisons have libraries, but they are woefully understocked, with books often shared amongst thousands and left threadbare. A former inmate told me that sometimes the final chapters of a prison library book had fallen out, which he would only discover, to his devastation, once he reached the end. People in low-security facilities and camps can receive books from their families and charities, but at most medium - and high-security facilities they must be sent directly from the publisher or bought from prison-affiliated vendors, often at prohibitive prices for those without an outside support network. For those in punitive segregation—who are in their cell for between 17 and 23 hours a day—there is, at best, a fortnightly book cart wheeled past the cell with a limit on the number of books the individual can take out. Operating a system of mass incarceration requires an act of aggressive dehumanization.
The situation is worse now than it was during my father’s incarceration in the 1990s.
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