After the governor of New York intervened to lift restrictions on prisoners’ reading materials, five current and former inmates explain what books have meant to them
Last week, thousands of inmates in three New York prisons stopped receiving reading materials from friends and family. Tens of thousands more, at more than 50 prisons across the state, prepared for the same restrictions later in the year.
“It really scares me,” said one inmate at Sing Sing prison, Michael Shane Hale, who relies on books for college courses. He is serving 50 years to life for murder. “It’s like a further way to isolate you.”
The restrictions blocked virtually all packages from friends, family, and even nonprofits like Books Through Bars. Prisoners were told to buy goods from prison private vendors – but because the vendors sold few books, the directive placed heavy demands on congested prison libraries. The state’s top prison official, Anthony J Annucci, said he was trying to prevent drug smuggling, but the policy faced a firestorm of criticism from politicians and the public.
On Friday, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, ordered the state prison system to scrap the restrictions. But Paul Wright, of Prison Legal News, said that his organization had raised legal challenges against prisons in Kentucky, Massachusetts, California, Michigan and Washington state in recent years, all on the grounds that private vendors have restricted inmate access to books.
In the following accounts, five current and former inmates explain what books have meant to them. According to a 2016 report, almost a third of American prisoners have extremely limited reading abilities, if they can read at all. The US imprisons people – especially people of color – at the highest rates in the world, with more than two million inmates currently in custody.
Michael Shane Hale
Man’s Search for Meaning
by Viktor Frankl
A few years ago, Michael Shane Hale met Doris Buffett, the sister of investor Warren Buffett. She had organized a piano concert in the chapel of Auburn correctional facility, in New York state. During her visit, she gave Hale a paperback book: Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of life in Auschwitz by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
“She said the book had helped her, every so often, to get a bearing on the world –what’s important, what’s not important,” said Hale, who is now in Sing Sing prison.
“It was shocking. I’m, like, the piece of shit that took somebody’s life. I’m the lowest of the low. And to have someone who genuinely seems to care about people – to care to fund programs to help society better itself – that was a really amazing moment.”
Hale was blown away by the book, too. “He went through something really horrific, and was able to find this meaning and hope, and bring it out of the situation,” he said of the author. “It gave me the ability to endure. Because in here, you lose hope. This is a very degrading, dehumanizing situation. I remember going downstate, where you’re processed. You’re shaved, your identity is stripped from you. They tear you down, and they don’t build you up into anything.”
When Hale arrived in prison, he hated himself for what he had done. “I really believed in this idea of an eye for an eye. And I really felt like I was responsible for taking somebody’s life. I felt like I should be dead. It still bothers me to this day. I still don’t know how to reconcile having taken someone’s life,” he said.
“I can understand why Doris reads it from time to time, why it helps her find her bearings. The pain and suffering that people go through – there is the possibility that maybe some good can come out of it.”
Link to the original article, with the other 4 books that changed prisoner’s lives,