Trying New Things: Bibliotherapy in Prison

By Rick Palmer

North American prison systems fluctuate between the punishment and warehousing of offenders. Only a minority of facilities have invested in quality rehabilitation programs. Most convicted offenders return to our communities. If we could direct more money to rehabilitation it would reduce recidivism and ensure greater public safety. But the corrections systems are slow because of a lack of public interest. "Out of sight, out of mind."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Canadian federal corrections system was on the verge of major restructuring. New, innovative programs were being discussed or even implemented. Dr. Ayres of the University of Victoria and others experimented with university programs within prisons. The University of Victoria and the University of Manitoba implemented innovative educational programs for inmates that had a great deal of success. Doug Griffin, the Chief of Academic Education with Corrections Canada, theorized that inmates had trouble with training programs because they did not know how to learn. The theory was that their inability to learn was a major factor in their inability to master subjects. Unfortunately the funding for this project "dried up" before it could be tried. To my knowledge, only one correctional facility used it.

Dr. Robert Ross was also hired by Corrections Canada during this period to identify possible treatment methods. On his list was bibliotherapy - the use of books to help people solve problems and make change. The rationales for its use are to develop individuals' self-esteem, to help them find interests beyond themselves, increase their understanding of human motivations, help them do honest self-appraisals, to show that here is more than one solution to a problem, and to help plan constructive solutions to problems.

Good Books from a Women's Book Store

At one time, I was the Chief of Education and Training at the Stony Mountain prison near Winnipeg. For a time I took direct command of the prison library and formed a library board. It included the inmate president, who was worried about family violence - particularly about the way offenders treated their wives and girlfriends. I suggested we buy books on violence toward women and how to prevent it. We sought suggestions on good books from women's organizations and a large women's book store. We realized that fiction and mystery novels were popular among our offender residents, so we began to purchase a number of these books written by women. They were good books, generally written from a woman's viewpoint, and the mysteries were less violent and more of a puzzle to be solved. We examined other problem areas for offenders and looked for books that could broaden their minds and give them new perspectives.

Books and Reading Can Free a Person

Unfortunately, our idea was not adopted elsewhere nor was it the subject of any research. The public must become interested in the concept of prisons as rehabilitation areas and demand programs to empower inmates with skills to find constructive work and live beyond the gray walls of a prison. A new group of bright and innovative administrators must be found to run Corrections Canada - a group that will take a good look at programs and theories such as bibliotherapy.

Books and reading can free a person. I would urge the government to consider the adoption of a few pilot projects within the prison system using bibliotherapy and access to academic courses on the Internet. These projects should be measured by intensive research. If you agree with what I have written, lobby your officials for positive change in the corrections system.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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