Megan Sweeney is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, with a joint appointment in English and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. She recently published Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (UNC Press, 2010), and her articles about reading and prisons have appeared in Interrupted Life: The Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, PMLA, American Literary History, Modern Fiction Studies, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Feminist Studies, and Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism.
Thugs and the Women Who Love Them may not be the sort of title that you would expect to encounter in a discussion of literature’s power to transform prisoners’ lives. Indeed, many academics and activists express concern about the kinds of books that have gained popularity in contemporary prisons. Whereas male prisoners at San Quentin circulated handwritten pages of The Communist Manifesto during the late 1960s, women prisoners currently circulate urban fiction such as Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, narratives of victimization by T. D. Jakes and Iyanla Vanzant, and Christian self-help books by televangelist Joyce Meyer.
Critics of these genres argue that urban fiction glorifies crime and offers reductive representations of African Americans, that narratives of victimization reify women as victims, and that self-help books erroneously posit individual transformation or religious faith as the solution to social and structural problems.
Although such concerns merit consideration, my research has heightened my awareness of the extent to which penal policies shape contemporary prisoners’ reading practices. Since the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s gave way to the retributive justice framework of the 1980s and beyond, prisoners’ opportunities for reading and education have steadily declined. Many prison libraries have been severely depleted or closed due to lack of funding, and the elimination of federal Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994 sparked dramatic cuts in all levels of educational programming in prisons. This decline in state and federal funding has been matched by an increase in the presence of evangelical Christian reading materials and educational programs in U.S. prisons.
Recent legal precedents have further diminished prisoners’ access to reading materials. In its 2006 decision Beard v. Banks, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it constitutional for a Pennsylvania prison to deny secular newspapers and magazines to prisoners in its long-term segregation unit, on the grounds that this denial serves as an “incentive[e] for inmate growth.” Despite the dissenting justices’ insistence that access to the full range of ideas is crucial for preserving one’s sense of humanity and citizenship, the majority opinion argues that such claims are moot when “dealing with especially difficult prisoners.”
This restrictive climate for reading—and the broader history of reading and education in U.S. penal contexts—serves as the background for my recently published book, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (UNC Press, 2010). Drawing on individual interviews and group discussions that I conducted with ninety-four women incarcerated in North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, I explore the varied and resourceful ways in which prisoners use available reading materials to come to terms with their pasts, negotiate their present challenges, and reach toward different futures. Foregrounding the voices and experiences of African American women, I argue that the women featured in my book extend the tradition of prisoners’ self-education by using popular, female-gendered genres to make meaning from their experiences, understand sources of oppression, maintain a sense of community, and even transform themselves.
For instance, although urban books typically offer thin portraits that shed little light on characters’ feelings or internal struggles, many fans of the genre—including women across lines of race, age, and class—add layers of complexity by inserting themselves into the narratives. They use urban books as templates for reflecting on their own experiences as drug users, drug sellers, victims, and perpetrators, and for grappling with the notion that crime is a necessary “stepping-stone” to financial success.
Through their engagements with narratives of victimization—such as T. D. Jakes’s Woman, Thou Art Loosed! and Iyanla Vanzant’s Yesterday, I Cried: Celebrating the Lessons of Living and Loving—women involved in my study likewise reckon with their own experiences of sustaining and inflicting harm, and they try to make sense of the ongoing silence about abuse in their families, communities, the justice system, and prisons themselves. Engaging in dialogue with the books’ protagonists enables some women to identify and contextualize their own emotions, and to recognize that who they are and who they might become is not encompassed by the self who may have performed reprehensible deeds.
Narratives of self-improvement and religious transformation have also gained popularity in women’s prisons; particularly prominent are books by televangelist Joyce Meyer, which Meyer donates to prisons in all fifty states. Given that penal systems marginalize radical prisoners, censor reading materials that emphasize structural models of change, and offer few opportunities for counseling, books that foreground individual models of change are some of the only resources available to prisoners. Through their engagements with such materials, incarcerated women practice what I call “self-help reading.” A self-help reading practice involves an ongoing practice of freedom through which prisoners examine the limits imposed on them—external limits such as poverty, racism, and gendered violence, as well as internal limits such as addiction, mental illness, and self-defeating behaviors—and work against these limits by experimenting with other ways of being, doing, and thinking.
Although reading and self-help are most often parsed as individualistic, a practice of self-help reading also entails engagement with others through the medium of a book; the book serves as a stand-in for, or a conduit to, a mentor, friend, parent, or higher power. For women who are trying to recreate themselves with little assistance, books serve as guides and companions that help them to reckon with profound feelings of guilt, grief, and abandonment; develop a sense of control over their minds and addictions; situate their experiences within a wider context; and feel inspired and supported in their efforts to change.
Reading Is My Window also offers detailed portraits of two imprisoned readers, discusses the many kinds of encounters fostered by book discussions in prisons, and analyzes concrete ways in which the penal environment shapes women’s reading practices. For example, books and reading assume added importance in an environment that thwarts possibilities for interpersonal connection; prisoners sometimes read to each other as a form of nurturance, and they strive to maintain connections with family members and friends by sharing and/or discussing their favorite books. Given the perils of journal-writing in prison, several women keep records of the books that they have read as a means to assess how their thoughts have changed over time. Curling up with a book also provides a rare sense of solitude, comfort, and even soothing touch in an environment where quiet spaces, gentle human contact, and sensory delight are lacking. Even when women can barely read, books can serve as an important means to participate in the life of the institution.
At a moment when the Supreme Court has construed the denial of reading as a form of rehabilitation in prisons, it is crucial to recognize the important work that imprisoned women perform through their reading practices. If we allow ourselves to hear these readers’ stories, they urgently beckon us to transform the structures and institutions that keep so many women in prison.