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What books to assign to a group of inmate-students?

Dickens or Denisovich? Mailer or Malamud? This professor agonized over the reading list for a class of prison inmates.

By Joseph H. Cooper / September 28, 2012

'Papillon' and 'Invitation to a Beheading' were two of the works initially selected before the professor, Joseph Cooper, had second thoughts about which books would best instruct and inspire a group of prison inmates.


The classrooms did not have Wi-Fi installations. Outlets were few and far between (and not all had been charged with current). No matter; none of the students would be perched behind computer screens.

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In fact, there was no Internet connection on the “campus” – nowhere, anywhere, on “campus.” No matter; few of the students (many of whom could barely squeeze their muscled bulks into the opening encompassed by a laminated tablet-arm desktop that is connected to an injection-molded plastic seat by tubular metal struts) have any facility with the most rudimentary computer, let alone a smartphone, let alone an iPhone5. The students are housed in quarters that are entirely removed – cyberly and otherwise – from the world of WLANs, WNICs, spread-spectrums, orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing....

The students are cordless, router-less and cyber-less for the length of their “enrollments.” Their personal access points, interconnectivity and interface are limited by cellblocks and Department of Correction regimens. They are inmates – prison inmates.

My job: Devise a curriculum that would:

  • engage and “hold” inmate-students who had qualified for and then earned (through behavior and resolve) the opportunity to try their hand (and handwriting) at a college course or two
  • prompt reader-response essays that would accumulate to warrant community college course credit
  • be acceptable (somehow) to Department of Correction officials in Connecticut and New York, respectively (assuming that these officials would actually know of and seriously contemplate the selections itemized in my proposed list of readings)  

Mark Twain is credited with declaring, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.” Well, vanity and literary pretensions were my starting points and prompted me to assemble (initially) a list of pretty highfalutin' works. Here's a list of books I considered – including a handful that actually made the cut. 

"Papillon": Henri Charrière’s mostly autobiographical account of injustice, indignity, and escape could not be passed off as fiction. While the setting and circumstances (the French penal colonies of Guiana – most notably Devil’s Island), along with the looming guillotine, would make US incarcerations seem posh, the book’s extensive descriptions of escape plans and the many escape attempts were not the “escapism” I could advocate to any DOC.  Furthermore, I would have trouble confidently pronouncing the author’s name. 

"In Cold Blood": The two cold-blooded murderers got what they deserved, didn’t they? But, masterfully, Truman Capote managed (with art and artifice) to perform what one astute critic has called “alchemy” in mixing “untruth” with truth. For some, Capote was a storyteller who masqueraded as a reporter.  I didn’t want to have to look into and evaluate claims of inaccuracy, misportrayal, and misquotation. 


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