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.

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    '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.
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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.

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.

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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. 

"The Executioner’s Song":  Norman Mailer wrote so powerfully that some find the murderer Gary Gilmore “heroic” for insisting that his execution be carried out without a protracting series of appeals and lawyering delays. Okay, but what bothered me was Mailer’s role in hyping "In the Belly of the Beast" and obtaining parole for the book’s author, convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott – who, six weeks after his release, committed another murder. No go.

"Invitation to a Beheading":  I don’t get Vladimir Nabokov. Yeah, okay, he learned English really well. But somebody at the DOC or, more likely, some inmate would find out about "Lolita"... I found that book irredeemably “icky." As for "Invitation," flap copy speaks of “a dream country” and “a vision of a bizarre and irrational world.” The copy also speaks of the imaginary crime of "gnostical turpitude,” “chimerical jailers,” and the condemned prisoner’s ability to make his executioners disappear, “along with the whole world they inhabit.” Naaah.

"The Stranger": Too strange. I wouldn’t be able to explain Albert Camus’ thinking, the defendant’s indifference, or whatever it is, the defendant’s responses and his failure to respond and react as one might expect of someone accused and then convicted of murder. Too strange.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman":  The title would raise eyebrows – in a men’s prison, in any prison. Besides not being able to confidently pronounce Manuel Puig’s surname, and not wanting to get into the politics that are elemental to this time-and-place story, there are the intra-cellular taboos and surrenders that... Enough said.

"Darkness at Noon": “Who is this Rubashov?” “What’s he in for?” “What did he do?” “Where is this?” I’d have to do a lot of research to do justice to the questions Arthur Koestler's masterwork would be likely to inspire in inmate-students. In classrooms without maps and reference books (or maybe just a few random volumes from an ancient encyclopedia), I would be tasked with explaining the ideological and social tensions, along with the political context and military history. Didn’t want to have to explain Stalinism. 

"The Fixer": Inmate-students would pick up on many of the novel’s depictions of injustice, indignity, and degradation, and would surely have something to say about wrongful accusations, unrelieved interrogations, intrigues, and betrayals. However, absent a lot of background and context, I wondered if even the most intellectually curious inmate-students would fully grasp what Bernard Malamud was trying to say about the pogroms and prosecutions of Tsarist Russia and the scapegoating of Yakov Bok.   

"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich": The inmate-students were impressed by biographical materials that corroborated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal ordeals in gulag labor camps and his live-to-tell-about-it survivorship.  They got this straightforward linear recounting of deprivations and resourcefulness. They were keen on offering their takes on meager food and pilfered parcels and tedious regimens. They claimed to know from hoarding food and sick-outs, from checking emotions and summoning restraint; from endurance and mental toughness; and some do indeed take pride in even the menial tasks they ascend to in the prison work ladder.

"Falconer":  Close to “home” – geographically, drug-wise, and crime-wise. However, John Cheever’s novel didn’t deliver the pace and – strangely – the intricacy and immediacy of "One Day in the Life".... Maybe if Cheever had written about only one day in the life. 

"Great Expectations":  Talk about going on.  But in Abel Magwitch, the great Charles Dickens allows us to consider how a betrayed and bitter man (wrongfully-convicted) can still acknowledge an act of kindness and make good on a debt of gratitude – or something along those lines. However, Pip’s infatuation, longings, and social-climbing – and the whole notion of a gentleman’s great expectations – put me off.  He did pay a debt to “society.” If only I could somehow extract just key Magwitch moments (gently out of context) and convey them so as to give inmate-students “portable property.”  

"Little Dorrit":  And talk about going on, and on.  Yet, there are descriptions of the Marshalsea prison, the family life therein, and the consequences of indebtedness and imprisonment that would surely prompt good questions about the authenticity of those descriptions and depictions. If, somehow, I could just mine the right veins in the novel, those excerpts would probably prompt discussions (and written reflections) that would evolve into compare-contrast works. And, inmate-students would probably be intrigued by biographical accounts of how his father’s misfortunes and imprisonments weighed on Dickens.  

"A Christmas Carol": Yes!! Chains, shackles, bad dreams – allegorical and real. To some extent, aren’t we all, in some respects, “imprisoned” by regrets, remorse, or, at least occasionally, captive to memories? If visited by reminders and visions of what might be, wouldn’t we seize the opportunity to right things, avoid slights, do better? The inmate-students took this allegory as a gift.

"The 25th  Hour":  Would the inmate-students be able to identify with, relate to, the characters’ socio-economic situations in David Benioff's story of a drug dealer partying with his friends the night before he begins a seven-year jail sentence? Would they themselves have had an opportunity to put things in order between sentencing and incarceration?  

"A Lesson before Dying":  This Ernest J. Gaines’ novel might be too pessimistic, fatalistic.  The lessons I was proposing would manage to provide some hope; not build on and accentuate resentment and despair.  

"The Green Mile":  Most of the inmate-students had heard of Stephen King and many had seen a movie based on one of his books. Although I recoil at horror stories and contrived scares, this Depression-era saga, in its way, presents the scary realities of a rush-to-judgment and death row.  The similes and metaphors – along with the descriptions of “old sparky,” the exit room, and the tunnel used to take out the cadavers – gave us plenty to linger over and relish linguistically. Unlike "Rita Hayworth" and "Shawshank Redemption," whose bad guy is the abusive, despotic, and corrupt warden, the Green Mile guards (the death-row “screws”) are sensitive to the sensibilities of their charges and the sensitivities of their special tasks. Remorse and atonement become factors in the guards’ lives.   

"Cry, the Beloved Country": Thank you, Alan Paton, who drew on his years of work in South African correctional institutions to deliver a story of family tragedies that are so very relatable. The descriptions of the young people straying in Johannesburg did indeed compute. The father-son conversations really got to the inmate-students. One of the most memorable of their essays began, “Despite my father’s good example, I killed a man. To this day, I do not see myself as a murderer, but I do not see myself as innocent, either.” The essay closed with this recollection of a conversation separated by three inches of Plexiglas: “If it wasn’t for the partition that separated us, I would have thrown myself at my father’s feet. I would have begged for forgiveness. I would have begged to have my childhood back.” 

The only materials that were read with more interest than "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "The Green Mile" were photocopied synopses of US Supreme Court decisions pertaining to search-and-seizure, admissibility of evidence, Miranda warnings, interrogations and confessions, assertions of ineffectual assistance of counsel, and claims of “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

Every year, by statute – Section 2 of Title 28 of the United States Code – the US Supreme Court opens its new term on the first Monday in October. Inmates around this country are attuned to the docket whose arguments may offer possibilities for a rehearing or other reconsideration of their respective cases.

Meanwhile, if prison officials allow, there are some pretty good books that could be worked into inmates’ sentences.

Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. He teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University

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