Incarcerated Truths and Fictions

By Matthew Chase

Correctional education programs and facilities like prison libraries have suffered a great deal of controversy, particularly on the issue of literature censorship. Censorship is by no means a new issue for libraries inside and out of the prison system. We still come across news about parents seeking to ban a school library book, or perhaps a local group challenging controversial literature at the public library. Yet the distribution of literature is much more restricted in a prison, and some literature is restricted more so than others. An article from the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy addressed the issues of providing urban fiction or urban-fiction-160street literature to the youth inside the juvenile correctional system. Urban fiction is a very popular genre, especially among teens and young adults, featuring young often-delinquent protagonists in gritty settings like that of the ghetto or the barrio. Sexual content, violence, drug use, and profanity are not at all uncommon in this genre, although it is normally toned down for a young adult audience.

Yet the genre has nonetheless sparked controversy as educators and prison administrators fear that the literature glamorizes the criminal lifestyle and ultimately contributes to juvenile recidivism rates. Such fears have made reading urban fiction heavily if not completely censored within the prison environment. Granted, I agree there is that risk. There is literature out there that paints poverty, crime, and suffering in a very glamorous light. It’s not especially surprising since that’s what often sells in a capitalist society. There is media out there, books included, that seek to profit from the pain and the oppression by making it somehow glamorous or rewarding to live the “hard life.” That’s a terrible thing to do to a young mind growing up, especially if that’s all they’ve known. They become trapped. There needs to be responsibility for these representations of reality and also in their implementation as potential educational tools.

I discussed before how books are transformative, and they can have a positive and negative effect on the mind as with any media. Yet this effect is largely shaped by how the book is read, by what kind of literacy is being put to practice. At least in the case of reading street literature, correctional education has opted for censorship rather than literacy. There’s nothing substantial in the education. It is not to suggest that other literature is somehow less effective or less relevant to the learning process, but we cannot ignore the appeal of urban fiction, especially among the youth. An English Journal article showed that urban fiction is very popular among youth of color, particularly young women and girls. The genre has also been a space for many authors who have done time in prison, to write about their experiences and touch on the very real issues of mass incarceration, racism, and educational inequalities.

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The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez; a young adult urban fiction novel

There is such a strong opposition to street literature due to moral fears that youth will be exposed to the worst (e.g., poverty, violence, sex, etc.), and feel tempted into the “lifestyle.” While I won’t dispute these fears as entirely baseless, we also need to acknowledge that many of these kids do not need to read about it. They already live it every day. Being released back into the free world does not necessarily grant them release from the vicious cycle in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their communities. There is a systemic scarcity of resources being provided to incarcerated youth. A National Center for Children in Poverty report indicated that most correctional facilities for youth seriously lack services and resources for rehabilitation, contributing to high recidivism rates. We have already discussed how education has been shown to be the single most powerful resource for reducing recidivism, and this does not change for incarcerated youth. The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center reported that only 65% of correctional facilities for youth support educational services.

Urban fiction is by no means a perfect solution, but it is a valuable resource nonetheless and it is consistently denied to incarcerated youth. This brand of literature could provide a relevant context for youth to critically examine their own lives. It is a chance to interrogate and reflect on issues of masculinity, racism, substance abuse, and gang involvement. But it must be done mindfully and compassionately so as not to vilify nor glamorize the realities they live. The genre is not just relevant but of interest to these young prisoners, as book request statistics among incarcerated youth have shown, defeating the myth of the “reluctant young reader.” It is not so much reluctance on part of the youth, but of the censorship employed by the state. How can we expect incarcerated youths to become active learners and “productive members of society” when we do not even allow them to connect their lived experiences to learning materials in any meaningful way? It is akin to teaching sexual abstinence without teaching the basics of sex, with much the same outcome. It is censorship of not just a literary genre, but also a reality of inequalities we desperately need to address as educators and students alike.Thug-life-manenberg

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