In the month of May 2022, following Brazil, the government of the South American country Bolivia, decided to implement a project in their prisons called ‘Books Behind Bars’. With its implementation prisoners in Bolivia could get their prison period reduced by reading books. ‘The more you read, the sooner you will get out of prison.’
There are five types of criminal punishments in the Criminal Justice system. The retributive system where the saying ‘an eye for an eye’ comes into place and death penalty comes into play and criticized by international organizations like the Amnesty International is the first type of punishment. The next type is called ‘deterrence’ which aims at making an individual less likely to commit a crime which affects the society in whole. Rehabilitation is the next form of punishment which typically includes offering a host of programs while in prison. Its primary goal is to reduce the rate of recidivism. Incapacitation is the next type of punishment which means removing a person from the society. It could be imprisonment, house arrest or even execution.
As we see, there is no death penalty in Bolivia. This means that the system of punishment used there is the incapacitation system in which the guilty are locked up in jail. Then where does this project ‘Books Behind Bars’ fall? We could categorize it as a type of rehabilitation. So, to be clear it is a project where incapacitation is combined with rehabilitation, which is a commonly used technic around the world.
How does reading books become a type of rehabilitation? That’s the next question which we need to look into. According to the Cambridge English dictionary, the meaning of rehabilitation is “to return someone to a good, healthy, or normal life or condition after they have been in prison, or been very ill.” The famous saying by Sir Francis Bacon which mentions “reading maketh a full man” explains that reading will complete all aspects of human life from critical thinking to discipline. All of us who are voracious readers know about the positive effects of reading on our personalities. Prisoners are people who have been given a type of punishment for committing a crime. If the governments of countries could build up mechanisms to get the prisoners to read books (could be novels, biographies or even books about positive thinking) and understand that they have done something wrong and get them to fully confess for their crimes by getting them to read, there’s no need for electric chairs or gallows or to be clear the retributive system of punishment. Also, prisons will become, going with Sir Francis Bacon’s words, places where ‘full persons’ are produced into the society. Famous personalities in the world, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Vladmir Lenin and Mahatma Gandhi have been people who have used their time in prison to read and expand their knowledge and understanding about the general world.
“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner. This quote by a prisoner in the United Kingdom, shows that reading in prison will also enable the prison to become a better place for the prisoners and they also will be able to have some hope that reading more books, will earn them the luxury of being ‘free as a bird.’ As the government of Bolivia stated, the following were the objectives of this project “Books Behind Bars”,
- Encourage inmates awaiting their trial.
- Overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in jails in Bolivia.
This project looks like a watershed when it comes to the rights of prisoners worldwide. However, there are some problems which can arise, like how can someone be sure whether a prisoner has read a book thoroughly or is she or he just doing it to escape from prison? But, this project which was implemented in Bolivia is highly praised by human rights activists worldwide and also by international organizations like the Amnesty International. Something which all of us should remember is that as it says on the walls of the Welikada Prison in Sri Lanka, “Prisoners are also Human Beings.” Therefore, they do have the right to enjoy life even inside jail and also to work towards rebuilding their lives. Projects like “Books Behind Bars” could be stimuli that would make the lives of prisoners better.