As part of the campaign against restrictions on UK prisoners receiving books from family and friends, English PEN has asked former international cases of concern about the value of reading in detention. Journalist and board member of the Basque PEN Centre Teresa Toda, who was released from prison last November, explores the different roles books can play in prisons
Writing and reading are two of humankind’s key breakthroughs, following the invention of spoken languages. Abstract communication makes us human, taking us beyond the essential needs of our most instinctive side.
Reading and writing are fundamental to the personal development of women and men, young and adult, as well as essential to their material well-being. That is why all over the world governments, different institutions, charities, all sorts of organisations strive to teach reading and writing to those who still don’t know how to do it.
Of course, writing and reading can be dangerous… to certain established powers. Written words are powerful instruments that can become weapons for liberation from different forms of oppression, from poverty, from ignorance, from sexist violence, from prisons big or small, under dictatorships or supposedly democratic governments. Maybe that is why those in power prefer prisoners reading only tabloid papers or watching ‘reality shows’ on TV… wasting time they could use in becoming better people and citizens, with critical views of the world.
Reading allows prisoners to grow as people. It opens up new spaces, wider outlooks, fresh ideas. It stimulates our imagination. I know this first-hand, having spent six years in jail because of my work as a journalist for a Basque independent daily closed down by the Spanish Government. I got out of jail last November, having served to the last day of my sentence.
I did quite a few positive things in prison, within the narrow scope of possibilities allowed, but one of the most important was reading. I read books that I would have read ‘outside’, as well as others that I would not have discovered had I not lived in such restrictive circumstances, with more time to read. I read essays, history books, novels of different kinds… I asked friends and family for books I read about in newspapers or magazines, and I waited for them impatiently. Some lived up to my expectations, others let me down… but I enjoyed them all, they all brought me something.
People in the street think books allow prisoners to evade the harsh reality they are living in. In my view, this is only partially true; it may fully apply in some cases, but I think on the whole it is much more than that. You can learn from books, study, and re-read what has appealed to you especially. You can continue the stories you are reading while you walk in the yard or eat in the loneliness of your isolation cell. And you can keep in contact with what’s happening in society by reading up-to-date novels or essays.
Not only that, of course. Reading helps those people who are in prison because of their tough personal histories and social deprivation to better themselves, to better prepare for the time when they will go out into a society that is constantly changing and will demand much of them to grant them a place in it.
Curtailing the flow of books to people in jail is inconceivable from a democratic point of view. It is an offence against human rights, at a time in history when those rights should be expanding, not being narrowed, for all human beings, free or imprisoned.
About the author
Journalist and board member of the Basque PEN centre, Toda was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2007 for co-operating with an armed organisation, reduced to six years in April 2009. She was released on the completion of her sentence last year.