Books In The Cooler: A Prisoner’s Best Friend

Image courtesy guywinters.com
Image courtesy guywinters.com

By Christopher Zoukis

The arrival of the mail is the highlight of the day for many prisoners, who crowd around the officer’s station hoping their name will be called. The arrival of the monthly Bargain Books catalogue from mail order bookseller Edward R. Hamilton of Falls Village, Connecticut, is an especial cause of celebration.

A cornucopia of literary delights

Each book catalogue details thousands of books, complete with cover illustrations and brief descriptions. A huge variety of subjects are covered, both fiction and non-fiction, broken down by subject and genre. From dictionaries to fine art books, self-help to arts and crafts, teach yourself languages to cookery, romance to science fiction, it’s all there – a veritable feast for the mind. Inmates will be lost in their catalogues for hours, with a line of people waiting to see it after them.

Sadly, for most it’s just window shopping. Only a lucky few will be able to afford to buy any books from the catalogue, or have a friend or family member outside send them books. Those books that do come in will typically be passed from one inmate to another, before finally being donated to the prison library.

Eclectic and sophisticated tastes

One might expect that the books requested by inmates would be pretty low-brow, or geared towards rather self-serving interests: grisly true-crime exposés, How to Win at Texas Hold. ‘Em, the CIA Lockpicker’s manual. In fact inmates’ tastes are pretty eclectic and often surprisingly sophisticated. Sure, there are plenty of horror and fantasy books, perhaps as avenues to make prison life seem not so bad by comparison, or to escape from it completely. But books which have made their way from inmates to the prison library here at FCI Petersburg include Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man; Ernest Shackelton’s South; and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow; Biographies of Karl Marx, Sir Walter Scott, Gandhi, and Marcus Aurelius; works by Dante, Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Plato; by Hemmingway, Dickens, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Tolstoy and Trollpe. Just the other day I picked up a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, that had been left on the unit mailbox.

The Mexican government subsidizes American prisons

Self-improvement is hugely important for the majority of inmates who are keen to make something positive from the negative prison experience.

Spanish-speaking inmates in Arizona wrote to the Mexican consulates in Phoenix and Tucson, complaining about a lack of Spanish educational books in the state’s prisons. In response, the Mexican government contacted the Arizona Department of Corrections to determine which books would be useful. As a result, the Mexican government is donating 1600 textbooks in Spanish to be used across Arizona’s prison system. It seems rather shameful that the world’s richest country needs handouts from Mexico to provide educational books for prisoners.

Britain’s prison book ban

The British government, in contrast to that of Mexico, has recently taken a less enlightened view, banning British prisoners from receiving books from their families and friends. Previously, small packages, including books, could be sent to prison inmates, but the government has now banned the practice citing insufficient staff to monitor incoming mail for contraband or inappropriate content.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling argues that prisoners have access to books through prison libraries, but brutal cuts to the prison service budget mean that frequently libraries are effectively closed to inmates as there are no staff free to escort them. The cuts have meant that many British prisoners spend up to twenty-three hours a day locked in their cells. The announcement of the ban prompted an open letter to the government from many literary luminaries decrying the move.

e-Book heaven

From time to time rumors surface that the Federal Bureau of Prisons will be introducing e-book readers for purchase by inmates, who will then be able to buy e-books in the same way they can now buy music. If true it would be a potential gold mine for the Bureau, and a source of great pleasure for banged-up bibliophiles. Who knows if it’s true: rumors are ten a penny in prison. I won’t be holding my breath.

But now you must excuse me. I need to get back to my Bargain Books catalogue.

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