New Book: Reading Is My Window
Readers may be interested in Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons, new this month from UNC Press, by Megan Sweeney, an English professor at the University of Michigan. The bulk of the book is based on Sweeney’s interviews with 94 women prisoners, and examines how these women read urban crime fiction, victimization narratives, and self-help books, to show “how some women prisoners use the limited reading materials available to them in important ways: to come to terms with their pasts, to negotiate their present experiences, and to reach toward different futures” (pp. 1-2).
Sweeney situates her present-day findings within the history of reading in American prisons from the 18th century through the present. Although reading was central to the rehabilitative ideal of the earliest penitentiaries, Sweeney argues that over time, “penal authorities often abandoned their emphases on reading and education when nonwhite and female prisoners were involved” (p. 22). More recently, as prisoners have been increasingly dehumanized and prison policy has increasingly emphasized retribution over rehabilitation, prison libraries have been gutted and prisoners’ access to reading materials curtailed.
Despite the dearth of resources available to them (and here I’m quoting from the UNC Press description linked above),
Sweeney illuminates the resourceful ways in which prisoners educate and empower themselves through reading. Given the scarcity of counseling and education in prisons, women use books to make meaning from their experiences, to gain guidance and support, to experiment with new ways of being, and to maintain connections with the world.