KR BlogBlog

Literature in Prison

Mostly, the trope is annoying: “Juvenile offenders study Russian literature” and goodness sakes alive, lookie here, these [insert stereotype] kids are really getting something out of all that “literary fluff”!

It would be more surprising, by far, if some young people in Russian literature programs didn’t connect with Fyodor and Lev and Nikolai’s stories. Fyodor, in particular, has much to say to anyone doing the hard work of identity formation. I remember reading записки из подполья when I was sixteen and weeping, horribly, in a shock of self-recognition.

But so what? the Washington Post reader asks. You cried, that’s nice. Are there any “concrete results” for all this literary nonsense? The Washington Post almost flinches while relaying the story, assuring readers that “No one’s predicting a miracle cure for recidivism, a national problem” and anyhow, don’t worry, because even if this Russian b.s. is just a sugar pill, “there’s no cost to the Department of Juvenile Justice for the class.”

These are not Enlightenment times, after all, when we can openly suggest that literature might have a positive, constructive effect on people’s lives. These are practical times, times for “a tough wake-up call and practical job skills.”

I’m not suggesting, either, that we go back to Enlightenment thinking. I don’t believe that teaching Russian literature in prisons (or churches, or mosques, or malls, or fast-food joints) is going to have a effect on the national crime rate, or homelessness, or unemployment. Those problems are big, deep, and structural; great literature is operating in an entirely different sphere.

In the collection Doomed by Hope, ed. Eyad Houssami, theater director Zeina Daccache writes of directing “12 Angry Men” in Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison. It would be absurd for Daccache to claim — as she doesn’t — that staging this play was going to stop petty theft in Beirut. Lebanon has serious problems of class, race, and religious divisions, political imprisonment, and more, and these won’t magically go away if we change the prison drinking water. Daccache focuses instead on the power of theater for individual prisoners.

So, no, Russian literature (or Bengali, or French, or even Arabic literature) is not going to stop young people from being sent to prison in the United States. For that, perhaps judges and policymakers should be reading it. But is giving young people access to good literature a good thing? Do we really need to ask?