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January 06, 2006

Yes - promoting literacy in prisons does reduce crime

Posted by Emily Kingham

Promoting literacy among prisoners does reduce crime. Emily Kingham - writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison - responds to a comment on one of her previous Notes from a Prison.

Leftist, bleeding-heart clap-trap. Are you seriously suggesting that these people commit crimes simply because they're unable to read? People steal cars because they're amoral sociopaths, not because they have "fallen off the edge of conventional social networks". They have jumped. They commit crimes voluntarily. They put themselves outside of society. Their reward? Individual tuition, however ultimately pointless, aimed at persuading them that they're the victims. Do I really pay for this?
Thank you for your comments. And, yes, putting it crudely, you could say that I am suggesting that "these people commit crimes simply because they're unable to read". But it's not at all simple.

I think, in your comments, you are hovering on the edges of a debate on the meaning of evil. So I hope you will forgive me if I make a grand statement on behalf of the beneficial influence of literature. The "amoral sociopaths" who roam our streets in gangs, who terrorise the elderly, steal cars or destroy people's lives by throwing stones from a motorway bridge or torturing children smaller than themselves, turn out this way because they have been excluded from what Umberto Eco would call the "universe of literature".

This universe comprises those places where, through education and discussion, these destructive aliens might be reached by [Umberto Eco, On Beauty]:

a glimmer from the world of values that stems from and sends us back again to books.
Think, if you like, of the Good Book we were exhorted to read as children, and the messages contained therein.

I think these amoral sociopaths have not been taught about beauty (I can hear you groan), and by a Keatsian extension, truth and goodness. Pre-war England would have taught them about God. Pre-war England would have found them closer to the rhythms of nature. The fragility of life, its preciousness, the ineluctable truth of their own mortality are concepts they have not grasped. Post-war England has had its sights set elsewhere. They, like so many of us, equate good with successful consumerism, and they are left, depending on their financial circumstances, with one of two questions: if they're financially comfortable, it's:

Is that it?
If they're not, it's:
I want what they've got.
And if they can't have it, whatever it is - happiness, a car, innocence, an iPod - they'll make sure you and I can't have it.

In short, they are nihilists. Like Webster's Duchess of Malfi they are situated "de spero", outside the realm of hope. And they spread their hopelessness like an infection. It's worse than bird flu - and you want to stop the spread of bird flu, don't you? Well, you won't do it by sending the flu-ridden to a far-away colony.

As for your assertion that I convince these men of their victimhood, I feel quite cross about this. I'm not particularly liberal - how can I be when I have been the victim of crime four times? I have suffered three burglaries and one assault. So rest assured, I know what a victim is and I know what an offender is.

And I firmly believe that offenders should be punished for the harm they cause. But that punishment should comprise an awareness of the consequences of their actions. The trouble with our penal system is that offenders go to prison unconvinced of the wrongness of their doings. As a result, they remain unempathic (and isn't that partly what books are for? to teach us about others' feelings?).

In my view, offenders are not victims of anything except their own refusal to join in. That is why I try to get them to join in. And I do that because I don't want to be a victim, and I don't want them to be trapped in a cycle of offending. Furthermore, bizarrely you might think, I empathise with them. Anyone who works in a prison will say, with a sigh:

There, but for the grace of God, go I.
I see how easy it would be to be an offender. That is because I have an imagination and a healthy dose of humility. That is because I have known anger, disaffection and despair. I grew up on a housing estate in south London - some of my peers were glue-sniffing skinheads who ended up in prison for disgusting crimes like mugging old ladies or selling drugs. I ended up at university. I had C. S. Lewis and Louisa May Alcott. They had glue. I had a mother who, despite living in a council flat, listened to Radio 3 and took The Times. They had parents who were glued to the television. No excuse to commit crimes. As you say, they do it voluntarily.

But the point I am making remains this: 80% of prisoners are illiterate and / or dyslexic. That statistic is trying to tell us something. Hence my passionate ravings on literature that you have been so kind to tolerate and comment on (and I mean it - we're "civilised". We listen to each other. We understand the consequences of our actions). But are you not willing to admit your own good fortune, your own good sense? And don't you think it would be a good thing to pass these blessings on? Because we are blessed, and it wasn't our choice to be granted these blessings.

Most of the men I work with have children. I want them to be like my mother in the rearing of their children: to be curious about life, instead of angry with it, to be engaged in some kind of cultural debate, rather than standing aloof from it and throwing stones from on high. It's frightening to think that they are passing on their cultural vacuum to a new generation. Any work the prison service does in reinforcing good parenting skills is invaluable.

Storytelling is one such skill. Prisons are catching on to this (and by the way I am paid by the prison service and the Arts Council combined). Storybook Dads is a new initiative. We will be targetting offenders with young children; getting them to read stories to their children on to a CD which the children can play at bedtime. My role is to get the men to write stories. These stories received in the post from absent fathers will feature characters with the children's own names written and narrated by fathers who know them, who will include favourite pets and toys in them. They will feel closer to their fathers. Their fathers will understand what it's like to be a child, how it feels, and how important it is that they have something life-affirming to pass on to their children.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Good for you for putting in a spirited response to that comment, Emily.

However, while I don't find that comment at all persausive, I'm nevertheless not convinced by your reply to it either. I'd say you're quite right to say that a "debate on the meaning of evil" lies at the bottom of this.

Further to that, I don't know how one could very well develop an argument that did not make some kind of assumption about the nature of evil. (And further to *that* there is the larger question of whether it (evil) can be said to exist in a substantial ontological sense at all, as some people nowadays (not all of them leftists, of course) would doubt, it seeming to many that such a belief is tied up with worn-out metaphysical assumptions.)

But I'll try. It seems to me that whether or not there is such a thing as "free choice" (which is implied in the concept of evil) and whether we try to dodge that (probably insoluble) question by invoking concepts such as "responsibility", no-one's actions take place in a vacuum. Therefore, I think it makes no sense from *any* reasonable perspective to speak of "amoral sociopaths" and leave it at that.

However, I don't think that the reply establishes what it sets out to do.

To quote:

"But the point I am making remains this: 80% of prisoners are illiterate and / or dyslexic. That statistic is trying to tell us something."

It is an interesting (though not, perhaps, unexpected) statistic. But *what* exactly is it telling us? I'd suggest that it is not necessarily telling us that the prisoners are offending because they haven't been exposed to the "sweetness and light" of literary culture. It could, for example, just as likely be telling us that they were so disturbed so young (for whatever reason) as to be unteachable. And there are many other interpretations one could make.

I simply don't buy the (Matthew) Arnoldian view that seems to underlie this column. Since you cite C. S. Lewis, it's also worth mentioning that he was highly sceptical of that view - and of its re-emergence in Leavisite form. It seems to allot more significance to literature than it really possesses. Much as I love books, and even though I occasionally find one inspiring, I'd hesitate to claim so much for them. I'd certainly not suggest that because I've read thousands of the darn things I'm therefore morally, culturally, or "spiritually" superior to many people on the face of the globe who've never even seen a book.

Heck, there are other conduits for story, anyway, and if it made so much difference wouldn't more people who were disposed to act in selfish ways see, for example, "It's a Wonderful Life" on telly and feel a pull towards decency?

I'm just not so convinced by the Arnoldian view - nor, in a broader sense, by the moral value of education (as opposed to literary culture specifically). I think of Paul Johnson's mordant comment that the man in charge of Hitler's Einsatzgruppen mobile killing battalions had (IIRC) three degrees and a doctorate in jurisprudence from top German universities.

But pardon my scepticism towards the assumptions that I take to underlie your piece. I'm not sceptical at all of what you're doing at a practical level. I think it is of great value in and of itself in many different ways, and I think it is rather sad that it drew the reaction it did.

Posted by: Mike at January 6, 2006 05:23 PM

Emily's reasoning is typical of how many public employees justify their wages. They see a problem, decide on a solution and charge us for implementing that solution. Whether the solution actually works or not is of no real importance. The wages have been paid, the employee enjoys what they buy and the feeling of importance that the job brings and another 'solution' can always be dreamt up and implemented at the public's expense.

Posted by: simon at January 6, 2006 06:29 PM

I found your post to be very interesting and well-reasoned. Here, in the United States, we have a prison system that is most likey inferior to yours, from what I've heard. While some state prisons are well-run and reasonably progressive (Interestingly, this often seems to correspond with states that did not vote for our President), other prsions are rife with violence, corruption, and all manner of abuses. In part this is due to a conception in American culture that prison should be about causing the prisoners as much misery as possible, with littie if any focus on rehabilitation. I think that you are absolutely right in arguing for education in prisons. Keep up the good work!


PS: Have you ever heard anything regarding the use of full-spectrum lighting in prison-environments? I know that I go a little stir-crazy when I am without regular access to sunshine for very long. To think what it must be like to be restricted like that all the time!

Posted by: Zedmaster 3.75 at January 7, 2006 01:31 AM

As a reformed nutcase, i have to tell you that my reading skills were never in question. However i have committed crimes which i suspect you would characterise as disgusting. In fact i have done plenty of things which i myself consider shameful. I accept this is not 'normal' though, but i suggest it is the economic ramifications of illiteracy which actually cause the problem.

You're on the right track with 'empathy'; however suggesting that 'offenders' choose to commit crime is like suggesting that a starving person chooses to eat rotten food. If one lives in an unsafe environment, one does not learn empathy and one has no more ability therefore to actually appreciate the full consequences of one's actions than a person who has the ability can not do. This is why it takes controlled brutalisation to turn an ordinairy person into a soldier.

As for punishment, to suggest that it deters others from committing the same crime or deters re-offending is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation. If one is unable to adequately grasp the consequences of one's actions, how then do consequences deter one? For my own part, the idea of punishment only ever entered the equation when considering how to avoid being caught.

Things are very different now. My environment has changed totally and so have i, so much so that many of my earlier motivations seem almost incomprehensible to me. Have i been rehabilitated in jail? No. I was very good at avoiding capture and it wasn't until addiction had robbed me of even that, that i started getting caught. Even then i got away with the bulk of it and spent only 3 1/2 months on remand, much of that in the hospital. No, what saved me was over 2 years later spending 7 months in a well run residential treatment facility, where i gradually learned that i was safe and thus able to connect emotionally with the rest of humanity.

"There but for the grace of God..." Well, i have been there and i can tell you another idea which is also true (which i'm afraid i can't attribute):

"Along with the worst society has to offer, in a jail you will also find the best, the brightest and the bravest... of the poor."

Posted by: edjog at January 7, 2006 01:31 PM

Let us not forget the elegantly dressed throngs at the opera in wartime Bayreuth, many of whom were SS officers: their appreciation for art and beauty did little good for their unwilling guests being gassed in deathcamps. Conversely, I write this note from Afghanistan where about four in five people are illiterate, the vast majority of whom are peaceful, religious and law-abiding. These facts make it rather hard to claim that either literacy or exposure to art plays a big role in making one decent, peaceful or law-abiding.

Anybody want to offer us a more plausible explanation than the author's attempt? On the lighter side, I do suppose that, at least for the time in which inmates attend creative writing classes, it is harder for them to engage in drug abuse or homosexual rape.

Posted by: s masty at January 8, 2006 11:39 AM

...the same pre-war England that spawned the Kray brothers? Hmmm..

Posted by: Anon at January 9, 2006 11:06 AM

Please see the good Dr Dalrymple's many articles and books for some profound insights.

Offenders' parents are just as culpable for spawning children they have no clue how to raise. Liberal ideologies of intellectuals and mandarins are also just as responsible. For instance, the liberal ideology that holds that religious schools should be forbidden because according to them, it keeps children from different religions or faiths apart, irrespective of the the discipline and high educational standards that these schools inculcate and achieve.

Posted by: Peter Jibbs at January 9, 2006 12:59 PM

I'd agree with the comment about Theodore Dalrymple's insights.

Roger Kimball, of the _New Criterion_, recommending Dr Dalrymple's latest book, refers to his clear recognition of:

"the ominous frivolity of an elite culture for which 'transgression' and taboo-breaking are the highest terms of praise."

I'd say this is one of Dr Dalrymple's important insights. It's not the case that most conservative-minded people want to see savage punishments for petty offences or that they don't recognize that there are (to use the PM's phrase) "causes of crimes". But surely *here* is where any conservative-minded person parts company with the left.

And it's these "ominously frivolous" left-liberal elites who largely control the media (in particular the BBC). They are constantly bombarding the public with false and harmful images.

It's remarkable to read what happened to the Kingdom of Bhutan after it started to "enjoy" the antinomian and trashy anti-culture that reigns on the media in the developed world:

"Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became the last nation on earth to introduce television. Suddenly a culture, barely changed in centuries, was bombarded by 46 cable channels. And all too soon came Bhutan's first crime wave - murder, fraud, drug offences."

Even more surprisingly, this story ran in the Grauniad:,3605,975769,00.html

The Spectator blog was angry with the BBC when it (belatedly) picked up on this. But the BBC, not surprisingly, had trivialized the issue. The Spectator saw it as the BBC attacking Western culture. But TV programming hardly represents that, and I think there should be little in the original Guardian report that surprises a conservative.

Posted by: Mike at January 9, 2006 03:47 PM

"drug abuse or homosexual rape"

In British prisons, all but the most blatant drug abuse is not only tolerated, it is facilitated. The reason for this is simple, a prison regime only works with the consent of the prisoners. Prisoners are deprived of even the possibility of sex: drugs make the time go easier. This experience is not just my own directly, but that of friends/aquaintances and also what i've seen whilst visiting to carry a message of recovery behind bars.

Homosexual rape is not nearly so common in jail as popular ideas would have us believe. That is not to say that it doesn't happen, and once is too often, but rape is a crime of hate, not sexually motivated. Cons generally hate screws much more than they hate each other. There is another reason of course and that is that it would be a very risky enterprise to attempt, because it is very easy for even the weakest inmate to do another extreme grievous bodily harm. I'll not list the methods, unless asked by one of this site's moderators, because there is no way of describing them except graphically and they are disturbing. Suffice to say, if you're not a badass when you go inside, you almost certainly will be by the time you come out, which makes it that much more difficult to achieve any meaningful integration into society and why recidivism rates are so high among ex-cons.

It's not rape that you need to worry about, it's the constant threat of casual, but often extreme, violence from almost any source, Prison Officer or fellow inmate, that one can't help but be brutalised by.

Posted by: edjog at January 10, 2006 02:00 AM

Emily, Just came across this today, and it really touched a chord.
We are about to distribute our books (hopefully are anyway) to all prisons, linked to teaching resources and hopefully London Shakespeare Workout.
Have a look at the site and you'll see why we think they will be effective. It would be great to know what you thought of them, and what we are doing. in fact it would be great to chat. email and contact no's are on the site. hope this reaches you. regards

Posted by: Karen Wenborn at July 25, 2007 09:52 AM
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