“Stone walls do not a prison make,” the poet Richard Lovelace wrote while incarcerated for supporting the loyalists during a fight between Parliament and Richard I. A prisoner of innocent and quiet mind, according to Lovelace, will make of imprisonment a hermitage, presumably using the time for reflection, repose, and self-improvement — or to write one of the most famous poems about prison ever.
In recent times, the Department of Corrections has taken Lovelace’s words to heart, working tirelessly to ensure their institutions don’t accidentally become hermitages for the inmates they house. Over the past years, groups such as the ACLU and the nonprofit Books to Prisoners have begun charting the books states deny prisoners, a list as capricious, nonsensical, and downright depressing as any dystopian fantasy by Kafka, Orwell, or Vonnegut.
In Texas, for example, prisoners can’t read Dante’s Inferno, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Live. In Arizona prisons, subversive and seditious material includes Mythology of Greek and Rome, and that incendiary tome, Acupressure for Emotional Healing. For every state, there are myriad works of literature, reference guides, religious texts, and plain old beach reads that have been deemed unacceptable for reasons ranging from inappropriate sexual situations to depictions of abuse of animals. Even more puzzlingly, eyebrow-raising titles such as The Art of Seduction and Chemistry for Dummies (which you would think could come in handy if you were looking for an easy recipe for booze, drugs, or bombs) have been allowed through gates.
While prison officials must document their bases for rejecting books (and sometimes reverse their decisions to ban books, as in the case of the award-winning examination of racism in contemporary America, The New Jim Crow,) the underlying logic seems to be, A: because we can, and B: if a prisoner wants to read it, it must be in some way dangerous.
Perhaps wardens have watched too many (fictional) prison break movies, and truly believe prisoners are some of the cleverest, most resourceful, and determined members of (or outside of) society: give them a book, and they will inevitably find a way to turn it into a method of escape. (In banning The Four Hour Chef, Arizona censors declared the book contained survival skills that might help an escaped prisoner elude capture; How to be a Mentalist could teach prisoners to hypnotize guards and other inmates; Dog Psychology revealed secrets of scent detection techniques prisoners could use to throw search dogs off their trails after busting out.)
It is easy to be alarmed and amused by the arbitrariness of the lists of banned books and the flimsiness of censors’ justifications, but beneath the inclusion or exclusion of any specific title is an underlying debate about the role of prison that has tormented our country for centuries and remains undecided today. If the purpose of incarceration is merely to keep the bad guys off the street, and deter potential bad guys from breaking the law, then it follows that letting prisoners read what they want is more trouble than it’s worth. Why waste time and money educating or improving the lives of a segment of the population you’ve otherwise given up on, especially if it means they are more likely to struggle against or even escape their confinement?
If, on the other hand, you believe prison can be in any way rehabilitative, then the argument for banning books falls apart. And literary history supports this interpretation. Malcolm X learned to read in jail; he spent all his free time reading on his bunk, and would write in his autobiography, “up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.” Cervantes got the idea for Don Quixote staring at his blank prison walls. Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers while jailed for theft, using his recollections of youthful debauchery to combat the monotony of jail. Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience after just one night in jail, a night which caused him to reconsider the American justice system and conclude “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” And Oscar Wilde wrote his epistolary memoir De Profundis while in prison for homosexuality.
In the 50,000 word letter to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde breaks from his previously witty and light-hearted prose and expresses regret and self-recrimination for his life. Prison, he writes, helped him repent of his past transgressions, and undergo a spiritual and intellectual awakening. Published posthumously, the letter has been called “one of the most important love letters;” it is also an eloquent argument for the rehabilitative potential of incarceration.
De Profundis was only made possible through the intercession of a sympathetic warden who took pity on an ailing and weakened Wilde and brought him a book from his library. Wilde, according to legend, was so moved by this act he burst into tears, and soon the warden allowed Wilde to write one page of prose a day – the pages that eventually became De Profundis. The warden also continued loaning him books, which surely shaped Wilde’s ongoing evolution as a writer – while in prison, he read Greek poetry, Christian theology, and German and Italian texts.
But the book that influenced him most was one currently unavailable to Texas inmates — Dante’s Inferno.