Topic: Freedom through reading & writing

Topic type:

Freedom through reading & writing: a speech for the Friends of Tauranga City Libraries: 1st March 2010 by Jenny Argante. BA (Hons.) ALA Cert Ed

In ancient times, reading and writing were regarded as magical arts, restricted to rulers and to priests. This tradition continued throughout the Middle Ages and the scholar-monks wrote and illustrated books. Many a knight or courtier, forsaking literacy, hired secretaries to write their letters and accountants to keep track of their assets.

It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that men of high status began to see the sense of acquiring these skills themselves. But still for many long years in Western history the subjugation of women was ensured by a refusal to grant them access to reading and writing, let alone less basic education. Such learning, it was thought, would unfit them for womanly duties, to the point where they could become incapable of childbearing.

In the BBC series, Cranford, based on the book by Mrs. Gaskell there’s a scene where Lady Ludlow’s land agent, against the express wishes of his employer, teaches a young gypsy boy to read and write. For this offence, he is dismissed, and the boy sent to muck out the stables. Later Lady Ludlow is seen interviewing a candidate for the position of housemaid. When the young woman admits she can read and write, she is summarily dismissed. “I will not have such misfits about me,” storms Lady Ludlow. “They get ideas above their station.”

In the American Deep South, a lavish plantation lifestyle was upheld by hard and unremitting slave labour. Teaching ‘such animals’ to read and write was expressly forbidden by law. The guilty slave could be flogged or branded, and his teacher, too. Many of these slaves were the offspring of the plantation owners; denied, disregarded, sold on. To dominate, it is necessary to keep victims ignorant, for ignorance breeds fear.

In 19th century Britain radical working-class movements were fostered by the urge towards education – literacy and learning, a new understanding of the language of technology. The lower classes knew they must acquire the skills required for the Industrial Age, or be ground under. That was the motivation behind the Workers Educational Association, evening classes, factory schools - and the demand for public libraries.

Last year I read for the first time the story of Greg Mortensen in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, books that tell the story of establishing schools throughout the remote and poverty-stricken regions of Pakistan, Kurdistan and Afghanistan, where he has now built hundreds of schools, often for girls, in consultation with religious leaders and with support from, and hard labour by, local villagers.

Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute is now changing expectations for children and adults alike in these struggling and disregarded nations, ravaged by disease, war and disaster. In becoming educated to read and write, they are learning to think for themselves. His schools have brought hope and ambition to lives that were previously circumscribed and defeated. His slogan? “Promoting peace through books, not bombs.”

Last week I finished reviewing Warrior Princess, the autobiography of a young woman from Zambia whose life was blighted from an early age by AIDS, to which she lost parents, siblings, a husband and family and friends. Princess Kasune Zulu at 21 was diagnosed as HIV-Positive and given six months to live. She already had two daughters, thankfully free of the illness with which their father had infected their mother. Determined to live, and to do something about this devastating disease, Princess began to educate herself about AIDS - through reading, through questions and answers, though badgering experts.

AIDS has orphaned over 15 million children around the world. In the developed world, AIDS can now be controlled and contained. In many African countries, and especially in Zambia, it was too shameful to talk about, and a whole nation was in denial that it existed.

That has changed, through this one woman’s courage and determination to educate by words and by action. In a culture where women were expected to be submissive to their elders and obedient to their menfolk, she was empowered to take her message to Zambia, to the United Nations, and into the world. Through reading and writing she found the words to learn and teach what people needed to know.

We are readers. We buy and borrow books without much thought. We use the library regularly for its traditional purposes: information, education and recreation. We do not properly understand that reading is a skill not everyone has acquired by the time they leave school. Yet literacy – the ability to understand and use words properly – is the foundation of all knowledge.

Without words to express what we feel we cannot turn around and repair our damaged lives. Without words, we cannot build ourselves up through formative reading that reinforces who we are, and what we can become. ‘Formative reading’ I define as reading that changes us in some way or another.

For me, back in the 70s, it was The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir; The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. Their words gave substance to my unformed philosophies, my dissatisfaction with women’s inequality. Their words endorsed my feminism, and feminism was indeed a liberation for my generation, however badly and sadly it has turned out now.

I began reading literature that introduced me to other classes, other codes and other cultures – a custom I pursue to this day. Such reading has served me well. I learned, as too many others have not, that difference is never wrong; it is only different. I learned that words are the basis of understanding. I learned that through words we discover the freedom to be ourselves, and to allow others that same freedom.

Reading and writing are skills best learned at an early age. That is why it surprised me when I came to New Zealand ten years ago to discover that there was no school library service per se to sustain service and support whatever schools can manage for themselves. I was shocked when not so long ago the Rudolf Steiner School decided to abandon its school library, for no convincing reason. That noble thinker, Steiner, must be spinning madly in his grave.

Now in our declining economy, when useful information has never been more needful, public libraries are under attack. Tauranga may become famous as the first city in New Zealand to end free access to what libraries can offer – information, education and recreation.

I suspect it is the recreational aspect that bothers our councillors most; yet who knows where a casual interest or leisure-time hobby may lead? A child’s enthusiasm, imaginatively fostered, can lead to a lifetime’s occupation—in some instances to fame and fortune. A UK study done in the 1980s found that many working-class writers, artists and entrepreneurs first found their core talent and motivation by getting from a local library what was sadly absent from home and school—the initial stimulus for a lifelong journey of discovery.

In many countries, the freedom to say or write what you think is punishable by imprisonment, exile or death. It behoves us never to take for granted our own freedom of speech, or to fail in ensuring the empowerment of our nation’s citizens through reading and writing.

That empowerment begins in the home – with mums and dads reading to their children, and in front of their children. Coming from a book-friendly home makes early school learning easier. Think of how much children learn between 1 and 5. They are geniuses, thanks to the dedication of committed parents and preschool teachers. When I think of the knowledge most will acquire between five and sixteen, I honour the parents, teachers and librarians who worked together to help them learn and grow.

But for some, the dice are loaded against them – they go from a deprived home environment to a low decile school. By 12 or 13 or 14 they are lost to the system. So much potential wasted.

Their illiteracy becomes a shameful secret; it limits what work they can do and their power to make good choices. I have been a literacy tutor and it is heartbreaking to see grown men struggle to read a book meant for children, or using literacy resources imported from abroad that completely ignore his culture and his interests.

To understand the shame of illiteracy, read Ruth Rendell’s incredible tour de force, A Judgment in Stone, with its famous opening line: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write ...”

There are many negative results from illiteracy, and one is growing up criminal. If you can’t succeed lawfully, you will find illegal alternatives.

In New Zealand, the statute for the governance of prisons and prisoners has about 264 sub-sections in it. Only two are to do with the rehabilitation of offenders, and one specifically mentions literacy. If they come into prison unable to read and write, and their prison term is longer than three months, they are supposed to be automatically enrolled into literacy classes. Mostly, they are not.

All this explains my passion for a project we call ‘Books Behind Bars’. This is a proposed scheme to take reading resources into prisons. Together with PARS–the Prisoners Advisory & Rehabilitation Services—I’m hoping that, done properly on a regional basis first in the Bay of Plenty, Books Behind Bars will offer a model for others to adopt and adapt.

How did Books Behind Bars begin? I’m co-ordinating editor of Bravado, a literary arts magazine in the Bay of Plenty. In our advertising, we say, “If you want a free back copy, please ask.” One person who asked was a prisoner, with whom I have continued to have impersonal and intermittent communication.

In the course of our correspondence, I expressed surprise that he didn’t use the prison library to get the books he wanted–none of them frivolous or controversial. He wanted to learn French and how to raise chickens, for example. He told me that in most prisons he has been in—and he is a long-serving inmate—access to books is restricted to the maximum of 13 prisoners are permitted to keep in their cells, and the occasional supply of books from a mobile library van, or from a ‘book store’–it can’t be called a library–in the prison where he is presently detained. He says this happen if the guard is in a good humour, if he has time to unlock the door and allow a prisoner a few minutes to choose from the meagre display, if there is actually anything there that interests the prisoner or that hasn’t been read by him before …

This lack of books and literature in prisons is the problem we wanted to address with Books Behind Bars. For the past year or so, we have been reading about, and talking to, those involved with prisons, whether as Department of Corrections staff or as members of voluntary groups such as The Prison Fellowship Trust and Books in Prison, which is a service to women’s prisons only.

I am appalled at the failure of any coherent policy for using numeracy, social and literacy skills as tools for personal growth and rehabilitation; at the failure to understand the importance of literature and creative writing as a means to understand yourself and others, and at the failure to provide mandatory services such as access to books and learning.

I and a group of potential backers are now hoping to develop Books Behind Bars as a 2-year project sponsored in full or part by PARS, and with representatives from interested parties forming a working party. We’d like to begin with some basic research, finding out what is done–and where–and what remains to be done. We welcome any insights from others into possibilities that could help us understand what our main focus should be, and, with PARS behind us, to plan and initiate a helpful scheme to take books behind bars.

We think that PARS is the best organisation to liaise with the Department of Corrections to secure funding for this, and to act jointly to set standards for its inception, documentation, monitoring and evaluation.

In the UK I taught in prisons, training prisoner ‘trusties’ to work in prison libraries. I also delivered library services to prisons within a county library service or on contract. I feel New Zealand offers fertile ground for beneficial change.

My present understanding is that there are serious deficiencies in the provision of books to prisons; in the teaching of reading skills; and in the utilisation of funds meant for education and training – important factors in rehabilitation. In 2009 the education budget was 44% under spent.

Though our main focus is on getting reading materials into prisons, in talking about research and a feasibility study, I’d like to briefly consider three elements relevant to Books Behind Bars,

The first element is literacy.

Recent studies show that between 80-90% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate.* A clear route to offending has been demonstrated that begins with undiagnosed learning problems at school. This is society's failure, not theirs. Celia Lashlie has claimed, in Journey to Prison, that she can identify which child will end up in jail when they’re as young as four years old. Isn’t that sad?

Prisoners on admission for a specified minimum term are, on a mandatory basis, assessed for literacy, numeracy, and social skills; and are also supposed to undergo a psychological evaluation. It would be interesting to know if this does occur as a matter of prison routine insisted on by the Department of Corrections. A question concerning this should form part of any survey of prisons throughout New Zealand.

The Department of Corrections is spending $3.5m to improve literacy levels in prison, and it is hoped that part of that money will put the horse before the cart, and suggest liaison with teachers to help children from unachieving families in low decile schools before it is too late. One scheme I’ve read about is where Dads in jail learn to read so they can read books to their children on visits. This has brought about incredible changes in both parent and child, and in overall family interactions.

Literacy (and numeracy) can not be taught in isolation. This is not the prime focus of our programme, but it is a factor to take into account. Once you are literate, you need access to a series of graded readers with texts that are suitable for the reading level, but appropriate to age and interests.

Few such resources are produced in New Zealand: most are bought in from Australia, the USA and especially the UK. One initiative that might come into a Books Behind Bars programme is to commission suitable texts and make them available where prison tutors are teaching literacy skills. Perhaps down the road some could even be written by prisoners themselves. This could also be linked to the teaching of practical skills associated with the printing and publication of such texts as an alternative industry in one or two prisons in the North and South Island. Community publishing in the UK has given a voice to those whom society too often silences – including the illiterate. I refer especially to Centerprise, in London; an outstanding and inspirational success story that has taken nearly three decades to develop.

Where an individual lacks functional literacy, it is almost impossible for them to live productively in a text-based society, or to take that further and learn from reading, books and libraries. None of these are unimportant for prisoners, and all can contribute something to recovery and rehabilitation.

Learning to read is compromised by problems at home or with health or emotional well-being in early childhood that impedes the acquisition of skills. However, Sylvia Townsend-Warner discovered a 'key vocabulary' that worked especially well with Maori children in the schools where she taught, because they chose the words to learn themselves. (This is explained in her book Teacher.) I am interested in discovering whether such a 'key vocabulary' could be developed by and for prisoners.

This would tie in not only with literacy skills, but also with identity, self-expression and creative writing. Vocabulary is also extensively improved by reading. Books teach us who we are and what we could be.

The D.O.R.E. Program is of further relevance in any discussion of the teaching of literacy skills in prisons. This was first developed for children with learning difficulties, and especially those that come with a diagnosis of ADD, AD/HD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger's syndrome.

Learning any skill - including literacy and numeracy - requires the brain to be working efficiently. The D.O.R.E. Program was designed to maximize such children's learning potential by developing the brain with exercises. What is interesting is that in the USA it is now being applied to adult learners, and in prisons, with encouraging results. We intend to invite the D.O.R.E. adviser in Auckland to Tauranga, as my understanding is that its techniques can be undertaken as a correspondence course for self-teaching – useful in a prison population where transfer can take place without notice. The D.O.R.E. Program can also be used for individual and additional learning within a literacy class.

We should ensure we know what is being done to improve literacy in prisons on an official or voluntary basis. It is hard to make books of value to people who can’t read. We should consider particularly what a Books Behind Bars service should or could include that is literacy-biased rather than literature-based.

I am not suggesting literacy as a main focus this project: I do suggest that it impinges significantly on anything to do with books and reading, and cannot therefore be ignored. Books Behind Bars needs to be aware of boundaries and where interests coincide.

The second strand is LIBRARIES.

Let us discuss libraries. Surely it is their job to deliver books to readers? After all, they offer services to the homebound, blind and those in remote and rural areas by book bus or by post. Why not to prisons?

The problem is that there is no ‘prison library service’ that I can discover in New Zealand comparable to those in America and the UK. If a library has a prison within its district, a mobile library van may be scheduled to visit that prison on some regular (or irregular) basis. Theoretically, prisoners can request books; occasionally they may get them.

I have tried to discover which prisons have libraries: so far, the only one I know of is in the much-vaunted modern prison newly-built in Christchurch. This information is in the public domain, and yet I have experienced great difficulty in getting answers to questions about it from the Department of Corrections.

Why do I want to know? Because there are implications for our scheme in what libraries do; or, it might be fairer to say, what they can and cannot do. If they are not doing it, Books Behind Bars assumes a greater importance as an initiative to close the gap. If they are doing it in some place, if not in others, we need to study how those libraries manage their service, and how much it depends on paid, and how much on voluntary input. I would personally like to see a prison library service established in New Zealand if it truly does not exist.

Prison IS the punishment. Depriving inmates of access to what books and libraries offer – i.e. education, information and recreation – is tantamount in my eyes to cruel and unjustified punishment added to a prison term. If a prisoner cannot read, books are a vital tool in helping him to do so. If he can read, books are equally important when he has too much time on his hands that could be put to better use in terms of increasing his understanding of himself, of others and of society in general.

I do not intend to explain or defend the value of books and reading here: I will assume you understand this, and keep further discussion for later if you’re interested.

In the long-term, I would like to campaign for an improved prison library service. However, the major importance for Books Behind Bars in considering what libraries do is a basic need to assess which prisons and prisoners actually need books and reading resources the most. If they are already getting excellent provision from a dedicated public library service, we can put them on hold, and concentrate on jails where books are rarer than a hen’s teeth.

The third strand is LITERATURE itself.

I am defining literature as ‘the art of the written word’. Its literal meaning is ‘an acquaintance with letters’ – from the Latin littera or letter). Some prisoners have no acquaintance with letters–they cannot read them, and they do not get them. I think that is sad and damaging. In my mind, literature includes all genres–yes, even westerns, thrillers and bonkbusters – as well as novels, creative non-fiction, poetry and biography.

Books Behind Bars could be a means of taking literature into prisons for the benefit of prisoners and as an instrument of change. I did my thesis at library school on Formative Reading, and I proved to myself–and to the institution that awarded my degree–that books can and do change lives.

We cannot set up a prison library service overnight. We can, over two years, plan and present a proposal, and put it into place, and see what changes occur when we make books more available to prisoners. How we do it can only be determined after basic research, a viability study, and a careful consideration of pertinent issues.

Someone told me a voucher system might work, and I am sure a brainstorming session would result in many other valuable suggestions. There has been discussion on signing up volunteers to 'adopt' a prisoner to whom to send, e.g. a brief monthly letter, and, quarterly, a book that reflects their interests.

I recently read of a programme introduced in the USA—it has now spread to many other countries, including Australia—called Changing Lives Through Literature. This was first initiated within the Massachusetts Correctional System, where, as an alternative to jail, offenders were sentenced to join a reading club. The judge who sentenced them–yes, it was mandatory, not voluntary—went along, too, as did court personnel and a couple of the prison guards.

The offenders were invited to examine their lives through discussions of literary works. The results fully justified the original ambitious premise: that literature has the ability to transform lives. And not just any lives: criminal lives. In the first incarnation of the reading group, participants gathered together at a local college and discussed together what they had been assigned to read. CLTL has since been used with women offenders, with equally encouraging results in terms of individual development and a substantial drop in the levels of recidivism.

The books selected mainly address four themes within the reading material: 1. Violence; 2. Self-identity, or finding a voice; 3. Friendship and love, and 4. The family.

I would hope that Books Behind Bars might base 1/3 of its selection upon the recommendations of what is now a major organization, as well as providing books to learn from, and reading for pleasure. Readers Digest, for example, is a popular and informative magazine, and has a regular page for increasing wordpower. The Listener and North and South are packed with interest.

In America there is another reading programme that has also intrigued me, and which I want to learn more about. It is called Journey to Freedom: The Power to Read and Write. Its instructional methods are influenced by scholars like Paulo Freire, whose philosophy claims that “the essence of education is the practice of freedom.” It was shaped by trailblazers like Marva Collins, who taught the Socratic Method of using a series of questions and answers by which to test the logical soundness of a definition or point of view. Your opinions, for example.

Journey to Freedom was targeted at Afro-Americans through the assertions of educator Dr. Alfred Tatum who asserted that black students, especially males, go through what he called ‘turmoil’ in their daily lives. This was manifested and experienced as violence, poverty and lack of opportunity. The overall objective for this programme was to figure out how students can turn such turmoil into power and be motivated to succeed.

With this in mind, Journey to Freedom created a reading list to mirror their turmoil and to match the historical significance of the struggle for literacy undertaken by their enslaved ancestors. Their mission statement was to create a curriculum that would prepare 21st century Afro-Americans to be future business leaders, teachers, advocates, and leaders. Their slogan is “Readers are leaders.” Their goal is to change how their young people view reading and writing, and therefore how they view themselves.

Journey to Freedom believes that literacy is the key to education; education is the key to freedom; education can liberate others; reading and writing can make a difference to who you are and what you’re capable of.

Says Dr. Tatum, “Increased reading achievement and literacy development among America’s poor black males can provide them with greater opportunity to participate in all the good that America has to offer. It can also lead to higher levels of college enrolment, lower levels of unemployment, a reduction in violent crime, and lower incarceration rates for black men.”

A statement that has resonance for our own disenchanted youth and for New Zealand’s dispossessed.

Entry to the Journey to Freedom programme is through a game, and then through answering a progressive set of essential questions about the value of reading and writing in the student’s own words (thus claiming ownership of that understanding.)

I like how Journey to Freedom gives equal emphasis to creative writing alongside reading. I have learned over three or more decades of teaching creative writing that, “To be a writer you must first become a reader.”

I have worked alongside many writers who have struggled to tell their own story, to bear witness. I have read books that inspired me. I remind you of The Diary of Anne Frank and its enduring influence in the world. Of Angela’s Ashes by Frank Court, In Endless Fear by Peter Crump, and Say Sorry by Ann Thompson. Testimony such as this is revelatory of the human condition – of our greatest weakness: the desire to dominate and control, and of our greatest strength: resilience in the face of adversity.

One thing that we are striving for at Tauranga Writers is to encourage the foundation of a ‘write to heal’ group in the Bay, which we’re calling Writers Anonymous. This has nothing to do with writing to be published and paid; but everything to do with testimony. In writing the past, you can reframe it.

In connection with this, I see a Creative Writing course for prison inmates following close behind the successful initiation of Books Behind Bars. I believe that if we cannot find words to express our hurts, the traumas and tragedies of our life, if we lock them inside, they fester and suppurate and keep us chained to a past we detest and to a person we don’t want to be.

Write to Heal is not my main drive at present, but is in the capable hands of other facilitators. But if anyone would like to know more about this, please direct your enquiries to

In the past two years alone, I have been ‘midwife’ to ten clients birthing books as diverse as Walking with the Taniwha by Paul Bennett and Jan’s Dash: Inspiration Against the Odds by Raewyn Weller. Without words, they could not tell their stories. Without words, we could not read their stories. Without words, there would be silence between us – and, I would claim, a loss of freedom.

The freedom to turn our lives around. The freedom to explore difference and diversity. The freedom to continue, from birth to death, to grow and develop, discovering our changing selves and beginning to know and understand others.

* The new research came from a Ministry of Education screening tool trialled on 197 New Zealand prison inmates, which showed that 90% were not functionally literate and 80% were not functionally numerate. The statistics revealed a far greater problem than that previously identified by the Burt Word Recognition Test, which showed an incidence of 12% for literacy and 17% for numeracy problems among inmates, and especially those who are Maori or of Pacific descent.

Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion