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Reading Is My Window

Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons

Megan Sweeney

Publication Year: 2010

In this book, Sweeney explores how some incarcerated women use the limited reading materials available to them to come to terms with their pasts, mediate their present experiences, and ready themselves for their futures. Drawing on extensive interviews with ninety-four women incarcerated in North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Sweeney examines their reading practices and strategies and focuses particularly on their responses to fictional crime narratives, stories of victimization, and self-help and inspirational books. Sweeney draws attention to the experiences of African American women, expands the history of reading in prisons by exploring its shifting roles over time, and complicates the notion of bibliotherapy in the prison setting. She hopes to bring these women and their lives in prison into relief--to counter common narratives about crime or justice, to show them as readers and thinkers even when out of public sight, and to uncover their understandings of silence, agency, and resistance. While Sweeney sees reading programs as highly valuable to individual lives (especially as a practice of freedom in conditions of confinement), she explores the complicated relationship of these programs to prison reform. Also, she explores women's reading strategies and enhances our understanding of how women build meaning through stories and narratives both similar and different to their own lives. Sweeney's lively writing should benefit the book's reaching across many disciplines.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. xiii-xvii

Like a quilt, Reading Is My Window represents the work of many minds and hands. I love how quilts transform discarded scraps and torn fragments into resplendent, meaningful wholes. While participating in a women’s quilting cooperative in Port Gibson, Mississippi, I witnessed women with different sensibilities and visions work together to create unique forms of beauty and meaning. ...

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pp. 1-18

“They lull us to sleep with romance! I’m telling you, four shelves of romance!” So says Solo,1 a fifty-six-year-old African American woman, in discussing the library in the prison where she is incarcerated. In Solo’s view, the library caters to imprisoned women’s “fantasy” of “being an entrepreneur or falling in love,” while offering few resources to help women address the issues that bring them back to prison. ...

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ONE: Tell Me What You Read; I Will Tell You What You Are: Reading and Education in U.S. Penal History

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pp. 19-53

In its 2006 decision Beard v. Banks, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it constitutional for a Pennsylvania prison to deny secular newspapers and magazines to forty of its “most incorrigible” prisoners.1 According to the 6-2 majority opinion, denying these reading materials serves as an “incentiv[e] for inmate growth” because it encourages compliance with prison rules.2 ...

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TWO: The Underground Book Railroad: Material Dimensions of Reading

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pp. 54-82

Describing her reading habits in prison, a thirty-nine-year-old African American woman named Cassandra explains, “I read every night faithfully from nine to midnight. Lights have to go off at eleven, but I’m still up in the bed reading. I have the bathroom light on.” Because she often has to wait for months before a library book becomes available, ...

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THREE: Between a Politics of Pain and a Politics of Pain's Disavowal

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pp. 83-128

Bookseller Magazine recently adopted the term “mis lit”—short for “misery literature”—to describe the growing number of memoirs that recount their au- thors’ experiences of abuse and trauma. A paradigmatic example of mis lit is Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive, which chronicles Pelzer’s struggle to come to terms with having been beaten, starved, stabbed, burned, and poisoned by his alcoholic mother. ...

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INTERLUDE 1. Denise: A Portrait

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pp. 129-139

Denise is passionate about reading. Her favorite reading materials include books about the Holocaust, historical romances, Toni Morrison novels, and newspapers. “You don’t know what you’ll find in the newspaper from day to day,” Denise explains, “so I read every inch of it. The NASDAQ—I have no clue what all that is about, but I read it anyway because what I don’t know, I create my own story for what it is.” ...

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FOUR: Fear of Books: Reading Urban Fiction

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pp. 140-172

African American urban fiction—also known as gangsta lit, street lit, ghetto fiction, and hip-hop fiction—has taken the U.S. publishing world by storm. Bearing titles such as Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, Forever a Hustler’s Wife, and Thug-a-Licious, urban books feature African Americans who are involved in urban street crime, including drug dealing, hustling, prostitution, and murder. ...

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FIVE: To Set the Captives Free: Self-Help Reading Practices

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pp. 173-212

In women’s prisons, narratives of self-improvement and religious transformation have largely replaced narratives of political transformation, reflecting a broader cultural shift from the politicized climate of collective activism and social critique during the early 1970s to the self-help climate of the 1980s and beyond.1 ...

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INTERLUDE 2 Monique: A Portrait

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pp. 213-225

“My grandmother raised me at a young age to read the newspaper,” says Monique, a twenty-nine-year-old African American woman, in describing how she has rekindled her love of reading while in prison. “On the street, I really didn’t have time to read. . . . But here, it’s like let me get that book! I’m all over it. . . . I read to keep my knowledge vast, so I don’t just limit myself to this spot ...

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SIX: Encounters: The Meeting Ground of Books

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pp. 226-251

In his 2004 work, Oblivion, anthropologist Marc Augé reflects,

The fact of recording other people’s tales, or “participating” in their “fictions,” does not happen without having an effect on the life of the observer and on his own “fiction.” The narrative of either cannot coexist without influencing each other or, more precisely, without reshaping each other’s tales. ...

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CONCLUSION: This Really Isn't a Rehabilitation Place: Policy Considerations

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pp. 252-258

Starr, a forty-one-year-old African American woman, offered the following reflections in describing “what it’s like to grow up in prison”:

Prison has been a learning experience for me. I grew up here. I have matured to the woman I am today. I learned how to process things differently, and now I understand my self-worth. Is it too cynical to say they saved my life? ...

APPENDIX: Study-Related Materials

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pp. 259-270


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pp. 271-304


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pp. 305-324


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pp. 325-332

E-ISBN-13: 9781469604367
E-ISBN-10: 1469604361
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807833520
Print-ISBN-10: 0807833525

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 609694689
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading Is My Window

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Subject Headings

  • Women prisoners -- United States -- Books and reading.
  • Books and reading.
  • African American women -- Books and reading.
  • African American women -- Study and teaching (Higher).
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