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Reading is Power; Writing is Revolutionary

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Written By: Benjamin Case

Author of : My Dad’s a King

In school and in society, reading can get pushed to the wayside because of all of the reasons that we find to be busy. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, it wasn’t until I was in a jail cell that I read my first novel. Throughout these years that I have spent behind razor wire and fences, I have read thousands of books. In the dark corners of history, where freedom is stripped away and hope seems distant, there are stories of individuals who turned to the power of reading and writing to transcend their circumstances. From concentration camps during the Holocaust, Roman prisons and penal islands that held the apostles to modern-day prisons, we find stories that serve as beacons of hope, illustrating how the written word can create revolutions of the mind, grant liberation, and provide purpose even in the bleakest of situations.

In the depths of Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning not only recounted his own experiences but also offered a profound philosophy on finding purpose in suffering. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Frankl explains. These insights stemmed from his career as a psychologist before being held captive and his keen sense of observation while living in captivity.

George Jackson’s “Soledad Brother” demonstrated how words can ignite revolutions. Written from prison, Jackson’s letters and essays exposed the systemic racism and injustice that still plagues the U.S. prison system. His writings rallied support and paved the way for prison reform movements. After Jackson was killed, it is noted that 99 books were removed from his cell, philosophy, economics, literature and history were a few of the subjects in is library. George Jackson emphasizes the transformative power of education and reading while in prison. He talks about how reading provided him with a way to expand his knowledge, sharpen his critical thinking, and gain a broader perspective on the world. Jackson believed that education was a path to liberation and self-discovery, enabling black men to rise above their circumstances mentally and emotionally. His letters often reflected his passion for learning and his belief that intellectual growth was a means to combat the dehumanizing effects of incarceration.

Malcolm X, a prominent civil rights leader, stands as a testament to the transformative power of reading within the confines of a prison cell. During his incarceration, Malcolm X embarked on a journey of self-education that would reshape his perspective and fuel his activism. In his own words, he described how he learned to read while imprisoned: "I woke up the next morning, thinking about those books. A whole new world had opened up for me. The dictionary had a picture of a prisoner looking at the word 'liberty' and another picture of a slave looking at the word 'freedom.' I am not one to be 'had,' and I laughed at myself. I would have laughed at anyone else who had let himself be had in that way. I never will forget how that dawned upon me." This realization marked the beginning of Malcolm X's transformation, as he devoured books and developed the critical thinking skills that would shape his advocacy for civil rights and social justice. His story shows the profound impact that education through reading can have on individuals seeking liberation, both intellectually and emotionally, even within the confines of prison walls.

Even in ancient times, the significance of reading and writing while in prison was evident. The apostles Paul and John, both imprisoned for their beliefs, used their time of incarceration to write letters that would go on to shape Christianity and influence generations. Paul’s letters, written from prison, became integral parts of the New Testament. “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2 HCSB) John’s exile on the island of Patmos led to the composition of the Book of Revelation. “The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near!” (Revelation 1:3 HCSB) These spiritual epistles showcase that even within the confines of prison, the written word has the potential to create profound positive change, providing solace, guidance, and inspiration to countless individuals throughout history.

For those currently behind bars and those who seek to support them, the examples above underscore the potential of reading and writing. Books can be windows to the outside world, offering an escape from the harsh realities of incarceration. Writing provides a way to process emotions, reflect on experiences, and maintain a sense of identity. Just as importantly, the act of reading and writing empowers individuals to reclaim their narratives, share truth, and effect change.

Through education and self-expression, those in prison can gain valuable skills, develop empathy, and imagine a life beyond their current circumstances. To those on the outside, offering access to books, writing materials, and education programs can be a lifeline, contributing to rehabilitation, reduced recidivism, and a more just society. It is important that those on the outside read what men and women inside the fences are writing. This will give insight into the change that is possible, despite a system that has deteriorated into a dilapidated warehouse.

In a world where freedom is denied, the power of reading and writing knows no bounds. From biblical times to the current pandemic of mass incarceration, these tools have sparked revolutions, granted liberation of the mind, and given purpose to those who refused to be silenced. As we reflect on these stories, let us remember the potential for transformation that lies within the pages of a book and the strokes of a pen. It is my hope that the words I have written, inspired by those before me, will one day be read to others as a testament to the divine power given to prisoners through the Word.

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