1 December 2023 Susannah

Writers in Prison

Writers in Prison

One of my favourite movie scenes is in The Shawshank Redemption (a film my Dad loved). One of the prisoners has started a library and is getting fellow prisoners to help unpack and catalogue boxes of books that have been donated. One guy holds up The Count of Monte Cristo and has no idea how to pronounce the name of the author – his attempt is Alexander Dumb Ass. The film’s hero, who is well-read, corrects his pronunciation and suggests the book be shelved in the ‘educational’ section as it is about a prison breakout. It’s a great scene that relies on readers knowing the novel in order to appreciate the humour.

Some authors have written books in prison. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his The History of the World (which has remained incomplete) while a prisoner in the Tower of London. The infamous Marquis de Sade wrote 11 novels, 16 novellas and 20 plays while he was locked up in France, poet Ezra Pound wrote some of his Pisan Cantos while interned in that city during WWII, Oscar Wilde penned his great letter De Profundis in Reading Gaol, while Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiographical Conversations with Myself locked up on Robben Island.

I was fascinated to learn recently that Brazil lops four days off a prisoner’s sentence if that inmate reads a book within four weeks and then writes a short paper about it. Certainly, a novel way to get away from razor wire and concrete walls. Evidently, Hugo’s Les Misérables (a book about a convicted felon) is especially popular. The scheme (first implemented in 2021) offers prisoners new perspectives on life, helps them pass the time, and improves literacy. Bolivia now offers the scheme as well.

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Featured image- The Shawshank Redemption, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/mediaviewer/rm363899904; bookcovers from https://www.goodreads.com/

Comment (1)

  1. Honey

    De Profundis is so horrible to read, painful. And the worst of it is that it comes out of a self loathing that Wilde put so much faith in his darling boy who went on to ruin his life when he turned his back on Wilde who gave up his freedom and his happiness for his young selfish beauty.

    I don’t have much time for Nelson Mandella because in the end he seemed to be nothing more than a Communist and I have no time for Communism. It has always seemed strange to me that the world gave a lot of angry attention to Apartheid, yet at the same time ignored the horrors of prisons in Communist countries like Cuba. The prisons in South Africa were palaces compared to Cuban jails.

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