Prison reform has a long and complicated history. Reform is often defined as how people come out of prison “changed” and with a sense of autonomy (or even freedom), while others remain the same as before they went in.
Prison Conditions Leave Little Room for Growth
When deprived of basic human rights, there is not much of a chance of reform. For example, in his autobiography, Malcolm X discusses his time at Charlestown prison as absolutely disgusting (no running water, defecating in pails, cramped and dirty cells). These conditions do not foster human growth in any way, and they definitely do not give any motivation for the man or woman to reform and change.
One incident that touches on this occurs when his friend Bimbi declares that “the only difference between [those imprisoned] and outside people was that [they] had been caught.” By having a sense of empathy toward those who are incarcerated and allowing them the tools to foster their reform (e.g., educational materials), APBP recognizes that basic human right.
The audience, when reading what Bimbi has to say, can see that maybe those in prison really aren’t so different from those on the outside. They have the same hopes and dreams, the same thirst for knowledge.
A Case for Autonomy (and the Removal of Bars)
Malcolm X’s autobiography explains how reform and confinement are related: “I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.”
Without any sense of self-control or freedom in prison, men and women come in and go out in the same way; they lack the will to change because of what they have been subjected to, a cage with iron bars. When those in prison are given the option to become autonomous and responsible for their own development, they have much more of a chance of becoming “reformed.”
Reform Through Educational Opportunities
Those in prison (and outside prison) are capable of change when provided opportunities. The writer Jimmy Santiago Baca developed a love for reading and literature in prison, despite considering it worthless before. He says that, when picking up some Wordsworth, “a deep sadness overcame me, as I had chanced on a lost friend and mourned the years of separation.” This is an example of reform in itself. Baca begins to understand the value of written language because he has writing accessible to him.
Not all men and women in prison have access to books—and this is why programs such as APBP exist.
Fostering learning and growth in prison is essential for reform. The “power of language,” as Baca calls it, allows those people a sense of freedom and unlocks their potential as human beings, not merely “inmates” who exist to be punished.
Baca’s statement about how writing and reading effected his mindset in prison sums it up best: “Through language I was free. . . The child in the dark room of my heart, who had never been able to find or reach the light switch, flicked it on now; and I found in the room a stranger, myself, who had waited so many years to speak again.”
Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project
At APBP, we rely on donations and volunteers to provide books and educational opportunities to people on the inside, whether through prison libraries or individual requests. Get involved today to help us continue challenging mass incarceration.
By Megan Lint