Books behind bars

TIRAN(i)A, Barcelona 2002

TIRAN(i)A, Barcelona 2002

In 2002 Sara and I visited an exhibition at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in Spain. The exhibition was called Tiran(i)a, a clever play on words that combined the name of the Albanian capital city (Tirana) and the Catalan word for tyranny. The exhibition in part celebrated the life and work of the Albanian writer Bashkim Shehu, who had been exiled to Barcelona in 1997. Shehu is a fine novelist and has also translated the works of a number of European intellectuals including the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the historian Eric Hobsbawm into his native language. However, as the name of the exhibition implies its main purpose was to recall the tyrannical dictatorship of Enver Hohxa the communist leader of Albania and to present a powerful challenge to the oppression of peoples living under such regimes.

The exhibition used a range of media to convey the miseries of living under a dictatorship, where to stand up for human rights was likely to lead to imprisonment and in many instances death. Audio-visual displays and paintings were interposed with chilling black and white photographs demonstrating the brutality of life under Hoxha’s ghastly and terrifying rule. But it was one particular exhibit, which whilst not depicting the brutality so evident in many of the artefacts, remained in my mind long after we had left the gallery.

Sealed behind the thick wire mesh of several cages was a collection of books. There were probably several hundreds and possibly thousands in total, mostly arranged in neatly presented lines or stacks just inches away from the viewer, but totally out of reach. These were books that had been banned under the Hoxha regime and to have been found in possession of any of these would have resulted in the severest punishment. I remember at the time of the exhibition being completely bemused by the range of titles on display, including children’s books and well known classics of world literature. The majority appeared to have no political significance and I struggled to understand what was to be gained by imposing such a ban, other than conveying a message through the exertion of power.

There are some who appear to believe that keeping books away from others will enable them to demonstrate their power. Exactly the opposite of what teachers know to be true.

There are some who appear to believe that keeping books away from others will enable them to demonstrate their power. Exactly the opposite of what teachers know to be true. Exhibit of imprisoned books at the Tiran(i)a exhibition in Barcelona 2002

I brought a postcard back from that exhibition. It shows a picture of the dictator Hoxha smiling benignly at a young girl, perhaps three years old, wearing an Albanian military uniform complete with a cap bearing a red star. Behind the child is a picture of a statue of an actual Albanian soldier, and with a touch of irony next to Hoxha at the edge of the postcard is a bookcase holding several volumes, though it is impossible to make out the titles on their spines. The card is disturbing not only because of its blatant propaganda message, but also for the exploitation of an innocent child to fulfil a far from benign purpose.

Since bringing this postcard back from Spain I have had few occasions to examine it in any detail, yet over the past few days I have found myself returning to it with some regularity. The prompting of this renewed interest has been a recent declaration by one of our UK government ministers that there should be a restriction on permitting books to be sent to individuals serving sentences in British prisons. The Ministry of Justice, claiming that there may be security issues attached to the sending of parcels to prisoners, appear to have taken the decision to deprive those who are  incarcerated, of the opportunity to find solace or learning from the pages of books.

At a protest outside Pentonville prison in London this weekend a number of distinguished writers, performers and artists voiced their concerns for the mean spirited actions taken. Others have written to national newspapers or gone onto the radio and television to express their disbelief at such a disturbing action. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy stated that

“These values which distinguish our country – imagination, sympathy and tolerance and compassion – are in danger of being lost … those with nothing are now being told by this government that they now have less than nothing.”

Why as a teacher should I feel such disquiet at this act by a government department? Well, for a start it has been evident throughout history that the banning, or in some instances burning of books, often precedes even more draconian actions. But as a teacher I am equally aware that a significant proportion of prisoners have learning difficulties, including problems with reading, and in many instances have fallen through the education system without having gained more than the most rudimentary learning. Surely if there was ever a population that needed and could benefit from books, it is that which is housed within our prisons.

The opportunities that have come with education have been a source of liberation for many of us. Books have been the means through which many have come to gain a greater understanding of the world, insights into the lives of others and an appreciation of the consequences of actions in a range of historical and contemporary circumstances. All factors that can contribute to the moral choices that we make. I feel sure that many of us as teachers would recognise the ways in which our lives would be cheapened and devalued through a denial of access to literature. It is to be hoped that common decency prevails and that those prisoners who wish to improve their lives and gain an education have the opportunity to access those books that may help them so to do. There is a bitter irony that Hoxha put books behind bars to keep them away from people, whilst we now apparently put people behind bars and deny them books.


“We know not whether laws be right

Or whether laws be wrong

All we know who lie in gaol

Is that the walls are strong

And each day is like a year

A year whose days are long.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

4 thoughts on “Books behind bars

  1. Another example of an absolutely negative, ‘who cares about them’ attitude. Pity, they consider sending books to prison ‘risky’ compared to their idea of locking someone away only to let them back out into the society, without providing them realistic support and opportunity to get their life back on track. Who knows, it could be a book that transforms them, gives them a desire to learn, change and make something positive out of their life, but I don’t see how it could create danger, unless it is a manual on how to make IEDs or something.

  2. Well said Benny. It is sad when prison is viewed only as a form of punishment with no real regard for rehabilitation. If we simply lock people away without offering any form of education then we are likely to build resentment and cause further problems in the future. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said that “A room without books is like a life without meaning.” Once we take meaning away what do we have left?

  3. Hi Jean,
    These are interesting links. Good to see that there are still some people who believe that despite their crimes prisoners need to be treated in a humane manner. I actually believe (hope) that the majority of people would see the importance of providing access to books for prisoners.

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