How Literature Could Help Criminal Offenders

By Sandy Atwood

“The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” – Michael Brunner, Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential.

As a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Justice, Michael Brunner drew a very stark link between poor reading skills and criminal conviction. A recent (2010) study has shown that 85% of all persons who are remanded to juvenile courts are functionally illiterate. Among adults, 70% of all inmates cannot read above the 4th grade level, and 60% are functionally illiterate. It is, of course, only one symptom of a matrix of conditions which lead to crime, but it is at least an area in which concrete improvement can be made and, perhaps, through such improvement the matrix can be changed.

While literacy programs, particularly prison-based, are not panaceas, they can benefit criminal offenders. In order to motivate offenders to improve their literacy, however, there must be some clear benefit. The following four advantages for prison inmates can be presented as inducements for inmates to improve their reading skills and to begin to read on a regular basis. These incentives are arranged from the most personal – even selfish – to larger and more long-term benefits.

Doing Time Between the Covers
Incarceration is boring. Yes, there is always the potential for violence – sometimes punctuated with active onslaught – but, for the most part, it is a life of monotony. This is why, for generations, the slang term for being in prison has been “doing time.” Entertainment of any kind is valued, which is why sports, games, hobbies and television are appreciated to such a high degree. If an inmate can be convinced of the entertainment value of reading as a pleasurable (and non-violent) means of spending time, the incentive for striving for better reading skills to enable him or her to read for enjoyment is that much greater. It allows an inmate to indulge in one of the great positive values of reading: Escapist fiction.

Lessons Learned
All human beings – and perhaps especially criminal offenders – have a tendency to believe that their situations are unique. Obviously, by being in prison, an inmate shares a common experience with many others, but there is still an isolating feeling that they are experiencing something that has never, quite happened to anyone else. Literature, biographies and history texts are replete with examples of others who have not only shared any individual convict’s experience, but have risen above that situation. It can be called “inspirational” reading, in the sense that the reader can experience a way out of his current situation; by reading about how others have overcome adversity can motivate him to attempt to do the same.

Far Horizons
Even beyond individual isolation, criminal offenders are often socially and geographically isolated. They often grown up in and lived in a narrowly bound area – a defined neighborhood – and have a limited number of friends and acquaintances. No medieval villager has ever lived so bounded a life as many modern criminal offenders, even outside prison. By improving their reading skills, and practicing them, an inmate has literally the entire length and breadth of human history – and beyond – and all the earth – and beyond – to explore. This is more than escapism, it is a revelation that there are other possibilities, other places and other futures than what they had ever considered before.

A Library Ladder
If, as is often the case, a criminal offender has not experienced much success in a formal classroom setting, literature can provide a self-guided, self-motivated and self-taught course of education. Auto didacts can often achieve amazing results in broadening their knowledge, language skills and motivation for a less painful life. This is particularly true if, once a reader realizes what a treasure lies at their fingertips, they have a mentor to guide them on some of the possible styles, authors and genres they might have otherwise missed.

There is an old saying, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, all the problems look like nails.” Literature can provide criminal offenders with an entire toolbox from which to choose solutions. No, literature is not a single remedy for all the troubles of the world, but it can add to the value to a troubled life.

Guest post contributed by Sandy Atwood, on behalf of Sandy is an accident attorney and in her spare time, she takes an interest in and writes about criminal law.


4 thoughts on “How Literature Could Help Criminal Offenders

  1. Thoughtful post, Sandy. Thanks so much. As you indicate, reading skills are important tools for all of us. But, perhaps more importantly, literature can offer possibilities for the future, hope and dreams. Whether in a cell or at the beach, literature can set us free.

  2. Sandy,
    I agree with Jack that your post carries many thoughtful ideas and readings why reading literature sets one free from the prison cell of illiteracy and allows one to imaginatively soar outside the bounds of present limitations like prison walls. Thanks for offering this stimulating post.


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