Prison books

A court in Portland Oregon, on Monday 27th January 2014, sentenced Rebecca Rubin for the offence of arson in the following way:

1. 5 years imprisonment.
2. $14 million restitution on her release.
3. She was required to read, whilst in prison, Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath.

The prosecutor had asked the court to sentence her to 7 ½ years imprisonment and pay $40 million restitution (it is not recorded what book, if any, they required her to read). It seems rather savage to impose literary obligations on prisoners.
Surely one of the joys of incarceration is the peace that comes from the removal of excess words being thrust into one. I can see some limited benefit in the trend: had Jeffrey Archer for example known he would be required to read his own books in prison it may have deterred him from committing crime. But, alas, so few novelists commit imprisonable offences these days to make this much of a policy. Nor is it clear whether Ms Rubin will be forced to sit an exam before she is eligible for parole; if not then it is apparent that she will be able to skip several sentences in this sentence. Isn’t the American justice system sufficiently brutal without this as well? It all seems most problematic.

But it appears that this part of the sentence was not designed as punishment but re-education. The book was presented, but not thrown, as it were. District Judge Ann Aiken said that she had imposed the reading condition on the defendant so that she could “learn non-violent means to protesting systems she perceives as unjust”. There is precedent in the United States for this. In July 2012 a woman was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment and required to read the Book of Job. In 2008 several teenage prisoners were forced as part of their sentences to read and attend a seminar on, whilst incarcerated, Robert Frost’s poetry.

Well what did Ms Rubin actually do to deserve this treatment? Between 1996 and 2001 she had been a member of the Animal Liberation Front and with others in three states had set fire to various establishments that they perceived to have been mistreating animals. Since then she fled from justice and worked as a vetinary assistant and then in wildlife rehabilitation. Having been a fugitive living an otherwise blameless life in Canada for nearly ten years, she surrendered herself to the FBI admitted everything, apologized and pleaded guilty.

I take no issue with the first two parts of District Judge Ann Aiken’s sentence. But no crime, however heinous, should be met with the condition of having to read anything by Malcolm Gladwell. First Gladwell’s David and Goliath is not only poor science but badly written. Gladwell is a journalist, not a peer reviewed social scientist. His hasty book is pop science plagiarized from obscure disciplines and turned into facile counterintuitive anecdotes. His thesis, using his trademark relentless examples one after another, purports to show how small is stronger than large (the blurb is “why underdogs succeed so much more than we expect”). It is not entirely clear how this text would teach an animal rights activist anything. The reference to dogs may in fact in this case be counterproductive.

But the more significant objection to this forced re-education must be the moral and intellectual argument that it is not acceptable for the state to re-engineer people in this way. Authoritarian regimes require citizens to be re-conditioned or re-educated for the supposed good of their societies. But a free society requires, surely, people to choose how to behave morally. To the question: is it better for a human to choose to be bad than be conditioned to be good? The answer is, unhesitatingly, yes. An artificial reversal brought about by state conditioning is almost always a mistake. Goodness is nothing if the flowers of evil are not accepted as a possibility. To interfere with the organic vitality of moral choice is to engineer a mechanical society of good zombies where choice is removed, and being good is nothing but an empty gesture. The presence of moral choice ultimately distinguishes humans from machines, and if that choice is removed then humans becomes indistinguishable from things.

I suggest that Judge Aiken be given a copy of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange to read, and Ms Rubin has David and Goliath replaced with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Edward Bindloss


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