In late June, my friend Birgitta, who runs the Sky Spinner Press Facebook page, posted a link to a short article from the Guardian that talked about inmates in Brazilian prisons earning time off their sentences by reading books and writing essays about them. (I’m not including the link here because the article has been removed due to copyright issues; it does appear on various websites under the title, “Brazilian Prisoners Given Novel Way to Reduce Their Sentence.”) I was immediately interested because I like the positive view of the reading program expressed in this quote from São Paulo lawyer Andre Kehdi: “A person can leave prison more enlightened and with a[n] enlarged vision of the world.” That’s an opinion I hope is true. I certainly believe it would be shared by the writers I’ve known who have taught literature and writing courses in prisons. But I think the main reason the article drew my attention is that prisons were a fundamental part of my life growing up.
Those of you who’ve read “Birdman” in Watching Oksana and Other Stories may have suspected that was the case for it takes place on a prison “reservation,” the small community where the families of senior prison officials live. It’s an unusual setting for a story but a familiar and vivid one for me as there was always a prison nearby when I was a child and teenager. My father was a custodial officer first and, after earning an advanced degree in penology, eventually an associate warden in charge of prison treatment programs. I borrowed that part of my life for the fictional events of “Birdman.”
This week my father has been much on my mind since the 17th would have been his one hundredth birthday, a celebration he missed by only two years. He was a man who was dedicated to his work and had a firm belief in not only its value but its necessity. He was not naïve about the men he tried to help. He was convinced, though, that many young offenders can be rehabilitated so they are ready to have productive lives when they are released back into society. In his last years, when his mind began to wander, he would often talk about “the drift away from delinquency.” It was a theory that apparently informed his work, but I could never quite catch where it had come from or if it had pre-dated his dissertation on recidivism. As I understood it, it’s the idea that men who commit crimes when they are young often outgrow their criminal impulses, especially if they are taught new ideas and skills that turn them in a better direction.
When I was wondering how to commemorate my father’s birthday, aside from the family flowers for his grave, I thought about those Brazilian prisoners reading and writing their way to shorter sentences. On an impulse, I typed in the phrase “donate books to prisons” on Google and discovered there are all sorts of organizations that serve that exact purpose. As a writer—and now as a publisher—I had a ready answer to my question. I plan to read a bit about these organizations and find what kinds of books they accept and how they accept them. I may also contact prisons where my father worked. My thought is that I’ll donate some copies of Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery, which has its share of both battlefield drama and life struggles. I’m pretty confident my father would have liked that way of marking his birthday, that as a lifelong reader, he would have agreed books can help prisoners finish their years of incarceration with that “enlarged vision of the world “Andre Kehdi speaks of. It’s a hopeful assumption, I know. Yet who is there who would want convicts to reenter society unchanged?