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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.

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"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.   

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"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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