We have a task for all of you. In late October, the first year of the pandemic, activist Devangana Kalita wrote outside. “Please ask women’s organizations and feminist publishers to donate literature, books and pamphlets to Tihar Prison No. 6 so that we can enrich and diversify the library.
By now, Kalita and fellow activist Natasha Narwal had spent months in the overcrowded Tihar prison for an unproven crime. As they wrote letters of love and rage to document their anxieties, the books remained a refrain in their daily lives.
The books always contained within their pages a hope for reform within the judicial system. It was only recently that the South American country Bolivia announced a state program that allows people to capitalize on reading and education – the more an inmate reads, “the fewer days he spends, even weeks, in prison”. A real “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
The resistance lies in books for their ability to empower individuals with knowledge and empathy. But also, reading inspires kinship and community; boldly challenging the prison state and its mandate of solitary confinement. Countries around the world have increased prison library budgets in recent years, and experts have recognized books and education as “evidence-based prison practices” that help reform. A 2014 UK report indicated that people whose attention was preoccupied with literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such lessons.
Like other arts-based interventions, the books speak directly to the chasm at the heart of crime and punishment. They insert kindness into a justice system defined by cycles of oppression.
In India, however, the prison structure is an abyss in itself, a void where millions of people languish because of overflowing prisons, deprived of care, adequate hygiene, the right to defend their innocence and the ability to reform and reintegrate into society.
“What is specific to the Indian context regarding the wrongs committed in our communities is that our society is based on Brahmanical patriarchy,” Saumya Dadoo, founder of the Detention Solidarity Network, told The Swaddle last year. And, therefore, “systems of punishment build on existing power dynamics and work to maintain social inequalities.” Governmental and economic forces thus profit from the systemic oppression of vulnerable communities, and subsequently their incarceration.
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It is therefore no wonder that the Indian state has often gone into the recesses of the judicial system to prohibit access to reading materials or the very existence of libraries in Indian prisons. Even last week, the Union government implored states to exercise caution, urging them to “keep an eye out” for books available in prison libraries, lest reading inspire “anti-national activities”. Earlier this year, activist Gautam Navlakha, arrested for his alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon violence, was denied a PG Wodehouse novel, and last year activist Sudha Bhardwaj was denied John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Eric Hobsbawm’s Globalization, Democracy. and terrorism. Even the Bombay High Court ridiculed this level of surveillance, noting that the idea that it was a “security risk” was indeed “comical”.
Most convicts and sub-trials in India are from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, OBC and minority backgrounds. “The majority of the prison population…did not have equal access to education and resources,” notes Baljeet Kaur, a researcher with Project 39A. She adds that education through literature can thus “help prisoners rebuild themselves and reintegrate into society”. [and] better processes for faster release of prisoners into society.
Prison libraries and education programs then become a real right. While society shares responsibility for pushing the individual to the point of involvement in crime, “it is society and, in particular, the duty of the prison administration to provide opportunities for education and the development of skills to the prisoner,” says Baljeet.
These programs also become ways to decongest overcrowded prisons or distract from a slow judicial process. Bolivia’s “Books Behind Bars” program, for example, hopes to address overcrowding in prisons by letting inmates out earlier, allowing the system to treat those in prison with more immediate care.
Education, in itself, also works to detach the individual emotionally and mentally from the system; the place of healing then lies in mental health. It is difficult to empirically show the psychological consequences of incarceration; this is due to a lack of record keeping and limited data. But a common trend, in India and other societies, is of increasing mental health problems and suicides among prisoners. Isolation; exposure to violence; lack of access to care; and a sterile environment that encloses the individual in concrete walls are all linked to mood disorders, depression and anxiety. A Project 39A report found that nearly 62.2% of death row inmates suffered from mental illness; 11% had an intellectual disability.
Perhaps the gravity of the emotional toll is best articulated by Michel Foucault, who in Monitor and punish: the birth of the prisonwrote, “Penalties like imprisonment — mere deprivation of liberty — have never worked without some additional element of punishment which certainly concerns the body itself: food rationing, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, isolation… It thus remains a trace of “torture” in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice.
If the prison institution locks up the mind, rehabilitation also requires cognitive reintegration; a healing that also applies to the mind and the emotions. Reading becomes one of these means; for those deprived of pre-prison learning and cognitive skills, engaging in reading and education is seen as a course correction.
For Mildred, an inmate at Obrajes Women’s Prison in the mountainous city of La Paz in Bolivia, learning to read was like escaping prison walls. “When I read, I am in contact with the whole universe. Walls and bars disappear.
Mildred’s experience is echoed in the Critical Survey, “Reading for life”: prison reading groups in practice and theory, research has presented evidence of how a rich and varied reading regimen can significantly improve inmates’ quality of life and directly treat their depression. Two things happened when inmates had access to literature: they said they were happier, even more self-aware. A “significant proportion” even found that certain texts helped them access parts of themselves; they have rediscovered old or forgotten memories, suppressed or inaccessible ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing.
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Moreover, the violence of a prison state is terribly isolating. As Dadoo explained, “When you isolate someone, you are completely unaware of the evil they have lived with. it allows the state and society to absolve themselves of their responsibility to address the social situation they have created and perpetuated. The individual stays in a cage while the system forgets. But prison libraries boldly oppose the violence of confinement; they bring people together, creating community groups in a punitive setting. Dr. Rishi Kumar Tiwari, who announced the mission of Indian libraries by establishing more than 11 prison libraries, called these spaces “cultural community centers”. “They can see libraries as a place where they can spend their free time productively and ultimately this will help their rehabilitation,” he added.
In her letters, Kalita remembers old notebooks and indistinct scribbles on the backs of worn copies. The Gita press dominates most of the shelves, but the works of Amrita Pritam, Premchand, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabelle Allende fight for space. “There are prayers, notes for loved ones, attempts to learn to write, traces of lives lived within these walls,” she says.
Literature invokes powerful feelings. Renewed empathy alleviates the internal conflict of guilt and helplessness that people may face. “For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is an essential part of their rehabilitation,” as some have noted.
Crime, poverty and marginalization are socially constructed, yet we limit the conversation to the individual when we talk about punishment. Softer interventions like reading can reframe the narrative of looking at an imprisoned individual with stigma and almost like an “evil” being, Baljeet notes.
It is important to note that these programs can very easily turn into insincerity, as they still exist in the existing prison system. “The process of self-care and healing is a very personal experience,” Kaur notes, urging caution against any “one for all” framework. These interventions can never exist as concessions in the absence of decent living conditions, strict bond requirements and a better judicial process.
In Crime and Punishment, which speaks of the friction between the individual and society, Dostoyevsky pointedly notes: “[People] believe that a social system that sprang from a mathematical brain will organize all mankind at once and make them righteous and sinless in an instant, faster than any living process! … The living soul asks for life; the soul will not obey the rules of mechanics.