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On Prisons, Teaching And Literature: Changing The Way We Think Of Inmates

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I just read an insightful article titled “Teaching Literature in Prisons.” In this particular article, Raymond Hayden places at the center of his analysis the following argument: the reason why prisoners engage more animatedly with the literature they are taught as compared to college undergrads is because they are in the actual throes of an existentialist crisis. For instance, questions of freedom and imprisonment mean different things to them than to college going students. Further, in Hayden’s experience, the prisoners being street-wise, engaged with literary texts with a lot of pertinent questions and analysis. College students, on the other hand, seemed to lack the same level of spark. Perhaps this was because college students could not directly identify with the text Hayden introduced to them.

It made me think of my own teaching of black literature to Pakistani students who might not necessarily identify with those texts – how to make it reachable to them has been a concern for me. I have tried using the method of comparison in which I ask students to imagine similar circumstances in our own culture. This could be in terms of color prejudice or discrimination against minorities. They are given tasks in which they either write from the point of view of a marginalized individual, or discuss the same in groups. From the vantage position of not being the other, but only impersonating him/her, the contact with the other was superficial for a few, a conscious dialogue with the other for some but a real becoming experience for the most imaginative and empathetic of the students.

Reading up on the topic of the wasted creative potential of the incarcerated, has also made me curious to speak about the experience of the inmates in class settings. I had not indulged in this aspect before. In 2015, at the Khayal Festival in Lahore, a series of dramatic readings were organized by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) in which the unedited letters from prisoners on death row across Pakistan were featured. This series was aptly called “LIMBO.” I think such creative projects should be taken up more by dramatic and literary circles.

Coming back to Hayden, while teaching literature in prison, he found that when perusing Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” the prisoners could actually relate to the perpetual waiting and non-action. This particular point in the article took me back to the days when I was myself studying “Waiting for Godot” in my A Levels. I suffered an alienation from the text and found absurdity which amounted to humor in my circle of friends.

“VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?

ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.”

I even recall that the above lines from Beckett’s play became a joke amongst us, and we would often quote it when we did not want to go to class. But how different it is for the prisoner! For someone who actually has no place to go but his cell. Or even the lines:

“ESTRAGON

Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

[…]

ESTRAGON

After you.

[…]

VLADIMIR

You’re lighter than I am.”

These could be read as a very dark humor for those who have been around the discussion of death, murder and suicide. Indeed, in the absurdist state of being in a prison, couldn’t Beckett’s absurdity be better understood? Of course there is the question as to what the prisoners are in jail for – whether it’s petty crime, brutal murder or even a wrongful accusation. In all cases, how would it feel for literature teachers to teach these prisoners? Could it make the text come alive? Could it benefit the inmates in any way? Could it be part of the rehabilitation process?

Reading Hayden’s experiences of teaching literature in five Indiana prisons in the 70s, has obviously raised the question: what is the state of teaching literature in prisons of Pakistan today? My online research shows a few signs of activity: a distance education program was set up by the University of Peshawar for inmates in 2016, an “adult literacy center” was set up in Peshawar Jail in 2017, and Higher Education Commission (HEC) started to prepare a ‘comprehensive’ education program with universities and NACTA for prisoners in Sept 2018.

These are all great initiatives, but obviously few and far between. I’m assuming that there is no talk of teaching literature yet. For the sake of the idea, I wonder how such a course would be devised? There would be the question of the selection of material to be taught to prisoners. According to Hayden’s research, Law references in literature were a very popular discourse amongst the inmates. Facing real challenging conditions in the prisons, feminist concerns could be very popular with women criminals also.

In her 2013 article, “Teaching in the Dark…” Deborah Appleman discusses her experience of teaching creative writing to 16 American incarcerated men from the ages of 22 – 60. In her own accounts, she recounts a man writing an apology letter to his daughter for murdering her mother and still another prisoner writing a letter to his 17-year-old self. She writes of criminals serving life sentences who were given “an opportunity to express regret and to take responsibility for their actions.” All this while these prisoners got a chance to “express themselves creatively and to discover they had some writing ability.” What is wrong with such an idea? Does it not bring out the humane in the system and the teacher, not just the prisoner him/herself?

I read somewhere that an ‘artist has to be humane to his fingertips” and I think any venture that makes us come face-to-face with the human aspect of ourselves, should be pursued. This is of course, by its very nature, difficult. However, I can’t help but think if teaching in prisons would be made more possible in Pakistan, what kind of an effect would it have on the teacher, the student and on society in general? Also, there are educated prisoners, who in turn, could teach other prisoners if a system of such a sort could be devised.

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Naya Daur