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WORDS NO BARS CAN HOLD by Deborah Appleman


Literacy Learning in Prison

by Deborah Appleman

Pub Date: June 18th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-71367-1
Publisher: Norton

A literature teacher recounts her considerable experience instructing high-security prisoners and argues for a rehabilitation program that includes the liberating effect of creative writing. 

Despite “incontrovertible evidence” that access to education can significantly reduce criminal recidivism, Appleman (co-author: Teaching Literature to Adolescents, 3rd Edition, 2016, etc.) concedes that convincing the public that convicts should be treated to what many regard as a forfeited privilege is a “tough sell.” Nevertheless, this is precisely the position she passionately—and inspiringly—defends. While most of the limited education provided for prisoners is vocational in nature, the author contends that an introduction to literature—in particular, the exercise of creative writing—can transform an inmate’s life. She avers that the “pedagogy of creative writing, with its emphasis on identity construction and narration, seems to provide opportunities for self-reflection as well as powerful clues to where the life courses of these incarcerated students might have been altered.” Appleman thoughtfully discusses her own experience teaching creative writing at a high-security correctional facility and poignantly relates not only the successes she witnessed, but also the limitations of an “environment that is not conducive to learning.” She includes profiles of some of her “incarcerated learners” as well as exemplary excerpts of their writing. Finally, she furnishes a bracingly honest reflection on the “school-to-prison pipeline,” what she considers “one of the most urgent educational issues of our time.” She discusses the possibility that a well-guided encounter with literature and writing could open up new ways of thinking—and ultimately choosing—for disadvantaged youngsters trapped in a grim cycle of self-destruction.  Appleman’s meditation is stirringly hopeful but not naively idealistic: She never denies the “brutal realities of the carceral state and the complexity of the population of those who live behind bars.” She also astutely explores the fundamental inhospitableness of prison to creative learning. A penitentiary is dehumanizing and despotic while education is humanizing and emancipating. Still, her argument is a ringing testament to the “transformative power of literacy” and the extent to which education can provide a “kind of oasis, or a glass bubble that floats fragilely in this sea of indignity.” The author writes not only lucidly, but also with great elegance and power. Her position is based on her profound experience as an instructor and a lover of literature—she has taught 150 incarcerated men. The writing samples she provides are simply extraordinary, not only because of their philosophical and poetical quality, but also because of the insights the writers demonstrate into their lamentable plights. Appleman does more than argue that these men, many of whom have committed heinous crimes and will never be released, are still human beings capable of moral redemption: She shows readers this through their writing. Moreover, the author makes a convincing case for the power of stories, not just to entertain and distract, but also to reimagine the writers’ very selves and supply the sources for inspiration that sometimes life itself refuses.

An affecting meditation on the ability of literature to empower inmates who are too often dismissively diminished by society.