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Crime and Punishment: Is classical literature the future of penal reform?

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Both Ben John’s crime, and his punishment, involve reading. John, who downloaded thousands of neo-Nazi publications, narrowly avoided a fifteen-year jail sentence. Instead, he has been ordered to read classic literature, reporting back every three months on his progress. Judge Spencer did not choose his words very well, sounding remarkably nonchalant as he said to John: ‘Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope’. It is no surprise that a number of anti-racist organisations believe his punishment is unduly lenient. The Campaign against Antisemitism even described the sentence as ‘inexplicable’. To be clear, I am pro-punishment: Ben John surely deserved stricter punishment alongside his literature lessons. But we must not let this obscure the fact that forcing criminals to read classic literature is a brilliant idea. 

Educating prisoners has been shown to reduce their likelihood of reoffending. UK prisons already make use of educational programs, such as ‘Enhanced Thinking Skills’ (ETS) courses. These use techniques which are common in cognitive behavioural therapy, and aim to alter participants thought-patterns so that they are less likely to commit crimes in future. The courses aim to give participants strategies to aid their ‘impulse control, social perspective taking, flexible thinking, values and moral reasoning, interpersonal problem solving and critical thinking.’ These courses are largely effective; one study found that participants on the courses are 52% less likely to reoffend two years after release. So education works. But why literature? 

It will be apparent to people who appreciate literature that reading a good book is, in important ways, a self-administered ETS course. Literature helps us to explore and interrogate our values by showing us what the world seems like to other people. This is why so many people feel compelled to write; in writing, we crystallise and share our understanding of things. The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, exposes us to the perspective of a brutally oppressed woman in a misogynistic regime. Reading it has changed how many people see political developments in the real world, so much so that the Handmaid’s red uniform has become a global symbol of the grim sexist future we must work to avoid. What could be better at developing ‘social perspective taking’ than literally taking up another person’s perspective and seeing the world through it? What could be better for the development of ones values than seeing different values critiqued, parodied and defended in fiction? 

This is all well and good, but it remains to be shown why classics like Austen have any relevance here, as opposed to more modern, more explicitly political texts. It isn’t as though our goal here is to turn neo-Nazis into Edwardian gentlemen. But there are sound reasons to prioritise the classics. These works are especially suitable for people whose crimes are political in nature because classic literature is part of our shared cultural inheritance. It is something preserved and handed down to us, the result of a kind of careful stewardship. Recognising that it is valuable, then, means recognising that our current political settlement gives rise to good things. This undermines the notion, shared by radicals on the left and right alike, that our political system is a decisive failure in need of total overhaul. Making a criminal appreciate the classics means forcing them to situate themselves within a valuable tradition, and hence, will surely make them less politically radical. 

Interestingly, this is an aspect of literature that isn’t replicated by ETS courses. Literature gives readers certain kinds of knowledge; knowledge of who came before you, what they were like, and what they cared about. This means literature is in an important sense ‘identity-forming’, where ETS courses are stuck trying to deal with the character of the criminal that already exists. Scott F. Fitzgerald described reading a book thus:

‘You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’

This suggests that engaging with literature could be actually more effective than existing educational courses; literature engages not just with what people do, but with who they are, and this could make it an especially powerful tool in reform. 

It is a shame that it has fallen to a lone judge to use literature as a tool to reform people; given the swathes of people who testify to the books that have shaped their identities. Carlos Fuentes said that literature ‘gives you more than one life’; for prisoners, this could be especially true. 

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