Elevate Difference

Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons

“Sometimes, I think they forget the women.” One seemingly simple statement at the start of this book—spoken by the chief librarian for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction—serves to explain the importance of a text like Reading Is My Window. What began for Megan Sweeney as a dissertation on prisoners’ relationships with true crime books evolved into a years-long study of analyzing the reading patterns of the occupants of several women’s prisons across the country.

In addition to conducting 245 individual interviews with female prisoners, Sweeney also facilitated fifty-one book group discussions. The interviews and interactions with the prisoners make up at least half of the book, so by the second chapter, you’ll find yourself engaging with the prisoners and their individual stories of mental, physical, and sexual abuse, along with drug use. The stories that emerge from these interviews and discussions offer a fascinating insight into how the women manage to regain a kind of humanity through reading while residing in an institution determined to dehumanize them. Solo, Monique, and Denise are among the many who will stay with you long after the last page, and rather than pitying them, Sweeney’s nuanced descriptions of each prisoner’s personality helps you understand that they are actively making their world better through reading, even if their world will never interact with the one outside the prison walls.

Sweeney structures her study through the investigation of three specific genres: urban fiction, narratives of victimization, and self-help books. She also examines the aspect of community building through prison book clubs, and the material comfort that comes from the mere act of holding a book—something that we in the free world take for granted. While those topics make Reading Is My Window an interesting and provocative read, the excerpted interviews are what take the book out of being purely academic and ground it in the personal.

Far too often, it is easy to do just what the chief librarian from Ohio said: forget the women. Prisoners are already a population of people that we often turn away from, so when the modifier of “woman” (and often “African American”) is added to that, remembering them as people who have worth becomes even less of a priority. By telling these women’s stories and taking them out of the institution, Sweeney takes the first step in driving home the point that if we forget these women, we may as well forget ourselves.

Reading Is My Window serves as a call to action. Sweeney spares no detail in describing the shoddy state of penal library systems, pointing out that many prison administrations see books as rewards for good behavior rather than necessary tools for prisoner rehabilitation. It’s safe to say that, after reading this book, you’ll want to consult the list of organizations that provide books to prisoners Sweeney includes at the end of the book to see how you can help advance the worthy cause of prison literacy.

Written by: Alyssa Vincent, April 24th 2010