De Gruyter Advent Calendar | Door 11
LIBRARIES BEHIND BARS
As Jean Paul once said: reading books means journeying to faraway worlds, escaping one's four walls and travelling among the stars. For whom could such a journey be more precious than for those whose daily lives are limited to a few square metres? This is just one of the many reasons why libraries are important facilities in prisons. Here are three anecdotes concerning libraries behind bars.
No crime fiction for criminals
Libraries in prisons are not new. As early as the 19th century, it was common for prisons to have libraries – but for quite different reasons. The view at that time was that the right reading material was conducive to the inmates' spiritual betterment.
The rules for prisoners held at His Majesty's Prison in the Westphalian city of Münster in 1903, for example, stated that prisoners were generally to be provided with a book once a week by the teacher. All books were catalogued strictly by denomination. Crime fiction was absent from the shelves.
Today, crime fiction is not only standard reading fare at the Münster prison library, but is in fact one of the most popular literary genres among the inmates.
When the right to education is curtailed
"A human rights scandal": that is typically how international activists regard Guantanamo, one of the world's most infamous prisons. Here too, inmates have access to a library. But not all books are allowed – far from it. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, and Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot, are apparently classified as literature unsuitable for suspected terrorists.
When bestselling author John Grisham learnt that some of his books were forbidden reading-matter for Guantanamo inmates, he did what he does best: he contacted one of the prisoners and wrote down his story for publication in the New York Times. A story about an innocent man who through unfortunate coincidences ends up in a place where some of the world's most famous works of literature are banned.
Long read to freedom
Kirk Bloodsworth was jailed for one of the worst crimes imaginable: the abuse and murder of a nine-year-old girl. He spent eight years of his life in prison for this crime, two of them on death row. In fact, Bloodsworth was an innocent man. But no one believed him.
In the course of his prison sentence, Bloodsworth worked for a long time as a volunteer in the prison library. He read over 3,000 books during this time, ranging from Stephen King novels to books on gestalt psychology. He also read about criminal law and exonerating evidence. And so he discovered that serious errors had been made during the criminal proceedings against him. He launched a legal appeal, which initially failed.
In 1993 however, the book appeared that would change his life: The Blooding. It describes how a man who had raped two women was identified by a DNA test. After reading the book, Bloodsworth realized that the technology, at that time still novel, might also furnish reliable evidence for his case.
It did: after eight years, 11 months and 19 days, he was finally exonerated. But to date, no law has been able to free him from the prejudice that he still faces.