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The Power of Books: Incarceration and Trauma

The Power of Books: Incarceration and Trauma


When 2018 started with an announcement that New York State would be severely limiting accessibility to books to incarcerated individuals, my heart broke a little. Fortunately, after an outcry from advocacy groups and the public, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered that restrictions on book shipments and care packages be rescinded and thus crisis averted. But it got me thinking, what felt so dramatic to me about the limitation of inmates’ books? After all, this wasn’t the only thing that was going to be limited due to the vendor restrictions, so why did limiting books hit me so hard?

A lot of it has to do with my own experience with reading and, separately, my personal beliefs about incarceration. As someone who came to COA from a mental health background, that is always my first and foremost concern, and the therapeutic benefits of reading are well documented. In an ideal world, every individual, incarcerated or not, would have comprehensive mental health care, however that’s not the reality. So to limit something that has the potential to fill in gaps for these individuals, feels like cruel and unusual punishment.

Prison Populations and Trauma

High rates of trauma among incarcerated populations are well documented and it can be a contributing factor to their incarceration, it can be caused by their incarceration, or incarceration can further complex already existing trauma.

Trauma comes from exposure (either direct, witnessing, or indirect) to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Its symptoms are intrusive, often recreating the original experience that caused the trauma. This can lead to negative alterations in cognition and mood (e.g., dissociative amnesia, negative affect, anhedonia, feelings of isolation) and in arousal and reactivity (irritability, aggression, risky behavior, difficulty concentrating).

Childhood trauma has a significant, positive correlation with risky behaviors and substance abuse, behaviors that are also associated with incarceration. The Harper High episodes of This American Life provide anecdotes that directly connect childhood trauma to criminal behavior, including a young man who neatly draws a line from his depressive symptoms about his friends’ deaths, his repressed emotions, and the way it makes him react violently. Trauma doesn’t always lead to violent behavior, it can also lead to other types of non-violent criminal conduct such as drug offenses.

How Can Reading Help?

Well, the ideal, like I said, would be comprehensive mental health care. But in the interim, we need to arm incarcerated populations with all of the tools at their disposal. And reading is one of them. Books provide the opportunity for escape and can be strong coping mechanisms in dealing with one’s mental health.

The idea that reading is therapeutic or that is can be used as a therapeutic device for incarcerated individuals is nothing new. Bibliotherapy, the practice of using reading as a therapy, was first documented in a 1916 article from The Atlantic known then as The Atlantic Monthly. It might not be a revolutionary concept, but it does provide a myriad of positive benefits:

Reading can help you de-stress:

Bringing this back to the concept of PTSD, stress is a key component of the disorder. Triggers can either cause stress or be caused by stress. Prisons are stressful environments and oftentimes compounds an individual’s trauma, further complexing it. Something that happens when an individual’s trauma is triggered is it triggers the autonomic nervous system through the amygdala, the structure in the brain responsible for our fight or flight symptoms. Our heart rates increase, adrenaline starts being produced, and our entire body readies itself for those two responses. This is a human response to stressors and something everyone experiences, however it can be a difficult response to manage while in prison when you cannot remove yourself from the stressors as easily and your outlets are severely limited. Reading has been shown to be an effective source of stress management, with studies showing that stress hormones and heart rates significantly decrease while reading. Being able to find an effective mechanism for controlling stress responses can be an effective tool when coping in stressful environments.

Reading helps you sleep better

A common PTSD symptom is difficulty sleeping; both falling asleep and waking up frequently during the night are issues that the PTSD population faces at higher rates than the general population. In addition, the sleep itself may not be productive, as it is often nightmare-filled or fitful. Reading’s de-stressing effects make it a useful tool for an evening wind down, especially when solutions like a cup of chamomile tea or warm bath are not necessarily accessible. Between the escapism from the story and its de-stressing effects, it can help an individual turn their anxiety and brain off just enough to help them fall asleep.

Reading as catharsis

Reading fiction has been described as running a simulation in your mind instead of on a computer. It mimics human interactions/relationships, and FMRI studies have shown that it can trigger the same stimulation in your brain. This can help an individual process difficult emotions, such as grief or the ones connected to their PTSD symptoms. Supposedly, George Eliot processed her grief through a guided reading program. While many prisoners may not have access to comprehensive psychotherapy where a therapist may serve the very same function, they should be provided the opportunity to deal with difficult emotions in other ways.

Reading develops empathy

If incarceration is a place for rehabilitation then reading supports this process. Reading fiction develops empathy, it forces you to take a perspective other than your own and explore the feelings and experiences of others. Numerous studies have connected empathy and reading fiction. If nothing else, this alone should be the primary reason we as a society support the access of books to incarcerated individuals.

Reading is a low cost solution with reported high impact. Similar to my own relationship with the written word, it not only broadens one's mind, but allows one to gain a new perspective on how they inhabit the world. It can be the difference between surviving one's circumstances and thriving by developing one's coping mechanisms and overall skill set.

If you are interested in supporting incarcerated individuals’ reading habits, Books Through Bars is an excellent organization with lots of opportunities.

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