Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.
MY FRIEND and New York attorney Beena Ahmad – who worked for nearly a year with the Wits Justice Project – had a quirky habit. In her neighborhood in Brooklyn she picked up books that people left out on the street with great enthusiasm (an aside: you can furnish your entire house with the stuff people discard; from baby shoes, to antique cupboards, to electronics). Sometimes I would share her joy, like when she picked up a battered copy of ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, placed on a garden wall. At other times though, ‘Form Your Own Limited Liability Company’, for example, didn’t seem quite as riveting a read.
But when I entered the basement of the bookstore Free Bird, where Books Through Bars New York hosts one of their weekly book packing volunteer groups, I got it. About 10 people were seated around a table or browsed the shelves crammed pell-mell with books.
Incarcerated people write to the organisation, requesting books they want to read. The volunteers read their letters and go through the book collection to see if they can find any matches and mail the books to the inmates.
Annie Soga, a 26-year-old volunteer who describes herself as a ‘library school dropout’ and her boyfriend Tim Nicholas run fanzines and are regular volunteers for Books Through Bars. “Dictionaries are most popular,” she says. According to this website “more than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.” If prisoners learn to read and write their chances of ending up back in prison drastically drop, and it also allows them to understand their rights.
Exonoree Gregory Bright, who I interviewed in New Orleans this weekend, knows this. He went from being illiterate, to representing himself before the Louisiana Supreme Court. Eventually, with the help of the Innocence Project, he was exonerated for a murder he never committed and for which he spent 27 years in Angola prison. I will return to his story in blogs and articles to come. Gregory told me he had to drop out of school at the age of 11 to take care of his dying step-father. After his arrest and conviction to life without parole, he managed to teach himself a few words, starting with a religious magazine he found in his cell. The only written words he could recognize were those in the prayer ‘Our Father’, which his step-father had taught him to read. These words were his starting point. In Angola, lifers were not allowed to participate in any programmes, as the prison did not consider literacy skills relevant. Life without parole means you will die in prison, so why bother, seems to have been the reasoning. Gregory persisted though and taught himself to read and write, with the help of dictionaries. When he was proficient enough to read legal texts, it became his sole activity. “It didn’t make sense to waste time on anything else than proving my innocence. My friends would find me asleep in the morning, my head resting on law books.”The power of books shines through in the thank you notes uploaded to the Books Through Bars website. One person writes that he is grateful for the books on photography that the project sent him, “the books (…) have provided great inspiration for artwork that I have completed for other inmates and staff at this facility.” Another man writes: “I would like to thank you for the books you sent me last month. I’m going to be executed May 30th but I’d like you to know that those books will give me much pleasure in the days remaining to me.”
Given the grim reality of life behind bars, it comes as no surprise that sci-fi and fantasy are popular requests, as are stories and pictures about family life; a surrogate for the loved ones that are missed.
Some books are not allowed though. Many prisons ban hardback copies and some ban books with maps and DIY books. In Alabama, The Equal Justice Initiative sued the Alabama Department of Corrections over its ban of the book ‘Slavery by Another Name’, which documents the abhorrent practice of ‘convict leasing: “African Americans in Alabama and throughout the South were re-enslaved in the years following the Civil War, due in part to laws specifically written to facilitate the arbitrary arrest of African Americans. Unable to pay the resulting fines, in addition to the costs for their own arrests, they were sold as forced labor to mines, railroads, farms, and quarries.” Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s director and former Springfield, Missouri attorney had sent the book to a man working in the prison library of an Alabama prison.
The Department based its decision on a regulation, which states that any piece of mail or other material “may be determined to be a threat to the security of the institution.” The case was settled in 2013, when the book was allowed in the prison.
When the evening draws to a close in the Free Bird basement, there are at least eight bags full of packaged books that need to be mailed. The brown packages clog up the first postbox and we haul the bags to the second, around the corner. I imagine someone in a cell unpacking and reading ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and I know this was an evening well spent.