Books for prisoners is an issue I care deeply about. It is not simply that I own a used bookstore, and therefore have an interest in feeding an addiction to words. No, the issue is more fundamental. Reading and a sense of spiritual freedom go hand in hand. Epictetus may have been a slave, but words set him free. I've met prisoners transformed by what they read. Above the door to my bookstore is a simple sign: "Set Yourself Free."
An unusual hearing will take place tomorrow in a Connecticut courtroom about the reading habits of one prisoner, Steven Hayes, a defendant now facing the death penalty for his role in the slaughter of all but one member of the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut, during the summer of 2007. The case has become legendary across the nation. Hayes and a co-defendant burst into the home of a prominent physician in the dead of night. They beat the doctor senseless, then terrorized his wife and daughters, eventually raping and murdering them by setting the house afire. The physician escaped.
The jury has been selected in the Hayes case and evidence will begin in September. Both sides are now engaged in what lawyers call motion practice, an effort to determine, before the jury ever sets foot in a courtroom, just what can and cannot be shown to the jury.
Hayes' lawyers have moved to prevent the state from offering evidence of what Hayes was reading while incarcerated in the Department of Corrections on an unrelated crime. The press reports the defense wants to keep jurors from reading "criminally malevolent" books while incarcerated at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.
What, pray tell, is a criminally malevolent book? Is that sort of like a homicidal gun? Books don't commit crimes; people do.
I worry that this motion and the attendant publicity will fan something like increased censorship in the prisons. It is already difficult to get reading material to prisoners. Jailers worried about contraband will not let folks bring books to prison, for fear of what might be secreted in the binding. Try delivering a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to some half-wit and watch what happens. You can pack a lot of smack in the bindings of that multi volume set. You must have new books sent directly from a publisher. My efforts to send used books to the prison have failed.
But a dictionary changed Malcolm X's life while incarcerated. He read it cover to cover and was empowered with the words he discovered and made his own. Words are liquid fire, setting aflame souls tha will burn for good or ill.
I've know about this motion in the Hayes case for awhile, although I have yet to see a copy of it, so I've had time to consider what book or books the state may seek to offer as evidence. Somehow I doubt there are volumes on how to burn a house to the ground or tie a child to a bed. Prison officials are literate enough to catch those.
My prime title is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the story of the slaughter of a Kansas farm family in, as I recall, the 1950s. This is a piece of brilliant writing that transforms horror into mesmerizing prose. Did Hayes read that work and decide his deeds could do better?
The defense believes that permitting the admission of these books into evidence is more prejudicial than probative. In other words, this evidence will anger the jury such that a fair and dispassionate verdict cannot be rendered. I doubt that is the case. The state must prove first that Hayes committed the crime. If it succeeds at that, it then proceeds to a penalty phase where it may seek to prove that Hayes acted in an especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner. If Hayes was reading up on notorious crimes trying to figure out how he could best the masters of sadism in sheer horror, I think a jury is entitled to hear that.
Last week, the defense also filed a motion to close the court during argument on these motions, lest jurors hear of the doings. That motion, too, should be denied. The jury has not been sequestered in this case. They are, rightly or not, presumed to follow the court's instruction to avoid publicity. Closing the court so that no one knows about this hearing conflicts with the public's First Amendment right to know just what is going on in our courts, and, apparently, in our prisons.
There are no such things as bad books. But there are bad men. Treating books like radioactive evil to be sequestered and hidden is bad jurisprudence. Hayes was a reader. So be it. He may well be a vicious killer too. We may well punish him for his acts without depriving him and others imprisoned the right to read widely and well. The world presents choices for us all. Putting blinders on those in need of light will not help them to see any better. It will merely empower a censor.