Prison time is boring. It feels like what I imagine death feels like—a void. Holidays, three-day weekends, and missed family events cause an empty desire all inmates must come to terms with in their own ways.
Each day feels like the one before. The program—daily routine—doesn’t change much. The creeping passing of time insults the mind like an electric shock—eventually the passage of time numbs the mind.
I found escape from the numbness by digging into books. Some books were in the yards, and some were sent to me from family and friends—under the strict prison regulations for receiving of books from outside people.
The prison officials rejected a hardcover Bible one friend sent to me. Because the spines of hardcover books are known as a place for secreting contraband, California prisoners can receive only paperback books. In addition, the books have to come directly from the publisher or a distributor such as Amazon.com.
I know of one time the hardcover book rule was waived by the administrators. Seven Locks Press, the publisher of my first book, You the Jury, sent me a box of the books. I was called to the mail receipt room to explain why I was sending myself a dozen hardcovered books. The guards hadn’t read the cover or noticed that I was a co-author of the book. “Roseman, how many of the same book you need in the library, man?” When I explained my co-authorship, I was an instant celebrity, of sorts. “Hey look at this: Roseman here wrote this book.”
My newfound celebrity was the catalyst to a situational change in the rules. I was allowed to bring the whole box of books onto the yard, and I gave them to guys who asked for them. My book became popular and got passed around a lot—it was almost as well read as the Louis L’Amour Westerns the inmates read to shreds.
Freud’s Pleasure Principle
I read books on the different prison yards I passed through. Some yards only had pieces of books, ripped into sections for easy sharing. Sometimes I read the middle section of a book before the first chapters. The genre was usually true love or true crime. But sometimes the pickings were more meaningful to me.
I kept a journal of short phrases or wonderfully worded notions I found while reading. From Erich Fromm’s Beyond the Chains of Illusion, a book about Marx and Freud, I noted in my journal how Freud’s pleasure principle strives to fulfill our most basic and primitive urges, which include hunger, thirst, anger, and sex. When these needs are not met, the result is a state of anxiety or tension. Doing time in prison is the opposite of the pleasure principle. In a way, capturing this quote was particularly validating of my mental experiences at that time.
I found comfort in beautiful and compelling written English. Prison English eviscerates the body of conversation between inmates and staff. I made note in my journal of gorgeous words strung together. Here’s a sampling:
- “The soft, petal-cheeked, sweet-smelling darling of a girl.” The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.
- “The humid, windy evening was breeding a thunderstorm.” The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.
- “The world of man is fit now mainly for satire . . . but a ghastly satire of the insane—the rolling head and laughing tongue and glassy eyes.” Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I recall not being in a good mood when I ran into this sentiment that best described my mood.
- “I could feel what was good in me going away, going away perhaps forever, rising after all to the moon, my courage, my wit, my ambition and hope.” An American Dream by Norman Mailer. Again, such expressions were therapeutic to me by putting in concise language the negative feelings I was having at a particular time. My tendency was to push back on what I read and to find exceptions within myself of the truthful words I was reading and living.
Prison is a good place to catch up on reading. Books contain entertainment, the power of diversion, and food for thought. If this was true for me, it’s also true for a good percentage of California’s state prisoners.
Here’s a list of the state’s twenty-three prison facilities. Pick a facility. Contact the resource departments that accept book donations to their libraries. Get a sense of what books inmates might like—auto mechanics, electronics, anything about computers, and, of course, Louis Dearborn L’Amour Westerns. Arithmetic and reading skill builders and Spanish–English dictionaries are always good choices. Remember to have the softcover books shipped from Amazon or directly from a publisher.
I hope you get a sense of satisfaction like none you’ve experienced before from gifting books to appreciative inmates.
Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net