Round Down: Is Reading a Right or a Privilege?

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After almost a year of protests by free speech advocates and famous authors, the UK’s Ministry of Justice is going to give prisoners the right to receive books in parcels from family, starting in February. Perhaps the most curious aspect of this case is not that books, among other items that a family member might send via packages as personal property, were banned, but that this case saw lawyers demanding that law be more nuanced with regard to determining whether books are rights or privileges.

Obviously (perhaps more obviously to those of us who have inhaled two seasons of Orange Is The New Black) prisons restrict what is allowed on their premises to prevent the smuggling of drugs and other paraphilia—and it must be noted that the public library system in British prisons was never in danger of being removed. But this case still feels like a victory for free speech and art in one society’s most limited venues.

And it makes me wonder about our prison system in the United States. I did a tiny bit of research and found out that in Florida, inmates often are restricted to having only four books in their possession, and those books must come directly from a publisher or mail distributor—if a family member attempts to send a book via a package service (like UPS) it will be rejected, just as books were restricted in the UK before the amendment to prison policy.

This limits on reading material strikes me as ironic, given that I spent four years teaching in various public education systems in the U.S. where, as teachers, we often grimly passed around research that showed federal prisons’ use of third grade reading scores to determine how many prison cells they needed to construct for the next generation of inmates. In this regard, it seems less important to worry so much about book access once inmates are in prison, and way more imperative that we focus on getting more books in the hands of children before it’s too late.

And yet, high-profile debuts from Guantánamo Bay, such as the release at last of Mohamedou Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, showcase not only how important it is for society to allow narratives to go in, but also to come out of our prison systems. One only has to think of a long canonical history of letters, diaries, and poems from prisons (by notable authors such as Henry David Thoreau; Miguel de Cervantes; Martin Luther King, Jr.; O. Henry; Oscar Wilde; e.e. cummings; Nelson Mandela; etc.) or look at the inspiring work done by volunteers with various Prison Arts non-profits to realize the value of reading and writing for all citizens, especially those at the mercy of the criminal justice system. I mean, for goodness’ sake, it wasn’t that long ago that it was illegal for citizens of color to read or write, period.

When we consider that fact knowing that a the disproportionate number of inmates are men of color, it is even more imperative that we take a hard eye to our policies regarding books in prison–to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. Only when we take a hard look at how we extend rights to the most shackled of our citizens do we truly understand the extent to which we value our freedoms.