It’s a story of physical and sexual abuse, one that author Dorothy Allison told in Bastard out of Carolina (Plume, 1993). It’s also Denise’s story. After Denise, 46, read through the pages of that novel in her Ohio prison cell, she said, “I lived that book.

You read this book, I ain’t got to tell you my story. … All I got to tell you is this is me.”

Denise, an avid reader, is one of 94 women prisoners that Megan Sweeney, LSA professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies, interviewed for her recent book, Reading Is My Window (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Sweeney’s book is the first to analyze the reading practices of women prisoners and recently won the 2011 Emily Toth Award for Best Single Work in Women's Studies and a 2010 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

The most popular novels found in women’s prison cells fall into three genres: narratives of victimization, African American urban fiction, and self-help and inspirational texts. While many of these books won’t garner critical praise anytime soon, Sweeney says women prisoners can learn valuable life lessons from any type of book, even sensational novels.

The V.C. Andrews books, popular in the 1980s, are one example. “You’d think those wouldn’t have anything useful, but women learn about incest and try to figure it out,” Sweeney says. “From romance novels they learn that there’s another side to sex and violence. They learn that they don’t deserve to be treated how they’ve been treated.”

Yet most prison libraries have banned a genre that relates to the lives of many female inmates. African American urban fiction, also known as gangsta lit, features urban street crime. Incarcerated women have told Sweeney that they like how the books “keep it real.” But to read these novels, the books must be mailed to the women from family members or friends. If the novels make it past the prison mailroom, Sweeney says the books are widely circulated on the “underground book railroad.” 

Click through the slideshow to view samples of inmates' book reviews and reading lists. (Story continues below.)

Gangsta novels aren’t the only books outlawed in prison. “There’s a crazy amount of restrictions on reading materials,” Sweeney says, because states can make across-the-board bans on books that include information on Wicca, homosexuality, and nudity, among other topics. That ends up excluding Harry Potter novels, books by Pulitzer Prize-winning Toni Morrison, and even health books on breast cancer. However, crime novels by authors such as John Grisham and James Patterson are widely available in prison libraries—a fact noted and questioned by many of the women Sweeney interviewed.

“How backwards it is, that we as a culture are so begrudging with reading materials for prisoners when it’s a tremendous resource for education and empowerment and understanding,” Sweeney says. In prison, where a wait for an individual counseling session can take a year, Sweeney says incarcerated women “look to the protagonists for lessons, both positive and negative, about making meaning from past experiences in ways that seem empowering in the present.”

Widely available in prison libraries are books by Christian author and speaker Joyce Meyer. Her ministry distributes hygiene gift bags to inmates along with copies of her books, and many women prisoners write to Meyer for free books. Sweeney says that prisoners from a variety of religious, racial, and class backgrounds told her they have received guidance from Meyer’s books and from Meyer herself, who writes about the sexual abuse she experienced along with her current shortfalls. Self-help books can give women an opportunity to look at how they can take control over their lives, Sweeney wrote in Reading Is My Window. She relates how Meyer tells her readers, “I know you can change because I did.”

Denise believes Meyer’s message. She doesn’t have to go back to her old life full of abuse and shoplifting. After reading multiple novels and analyzing characters’ motivations and decisions, Denise told Sweeney that shoplifting was her “defense mechanism for dodging pain.” She can see that now. While reading for Denise started out as just a book club in prison, ultimately, she said, “it was kind of life-changing.”

Donate Books to Inmates

Pass along your used books and magazines. Correctional facilities have individual policies on accepting donated reading materials. Call a facility near you and ask to speak to the librarian for more information.