500 prisoners select winner of
Goncourt Academy Prize for literature
A panel of incarcerated people has been chosen to pick the winning book for a prestigious new prize in France.
The prize is gathering international media attention for the composition of its award jury — men and women incarcerated in the country’s prisons.
The government-sponsored “Goncourt de détenus” prize (Goncourt of detention) is a version of France’s long-standing top literary prize named for the Goncourt Academy.
Over 500 incarcerated people from 31 prisons participated in debating about and selecting the winning book from a list of 15 finalists recently published in France, The New York Times reported.
“Just because we’re inmates it doesn’t mean that we aren’t worth anything or that our opinions aren’t worth hearing,” said Mathilde, an incarcerated woman who participated in the judging.
Under French law, only first names are used to protect the identities of incarcerated people and the reasons for their incarceration are not made public.
The Goncourt de détenus prize comes at a time when the country’s incarcerated population has grown to a record high of 72,000, exceeding its design capacity by over 11,000 people, the story stated.
The Times article noted that France has its share of tough-on-crime proponents who criticize its prisons for being too soft, but there have been positive reactions to the new book prize.
“Bringing literature to people, not cutting them off from it, that’s really great,” said Marlene Brocail, who manages a bookstore in the town near the Orleans-Saran Penitentiary Center where many of the award jurists are detained. “You aren’t judging what they did. You are judging literature,” she said.
The Times article reported that the first annual prize was awarded in Paris on Dec. 15 to Sarah Jollien-Fardel for her book Sa Préférée, which translates to His Favorite. The book focuses on a woman struggling to deal with the legacy of her father’s physical and psychological abuse.
Some of the incarcerated jurists identified with the woman’s struggles because of their own adverse childhood experiences. When debating the book, one incarcerated man said that reading it reminded him of the value of “confronting the demons from your past.”
“When I was young,” he added, “I repeated a lot of the violence that I suffered as a child.”
The article said that the process of reading and discussing was just as important to the participants, if not more, than the selection of the winner. Video conferences allowed award jurists from different prisons to debate the books.
“Whenever culture, language, and words advance, violence recedes,” said Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s justice minister, about the prize. “Time in prison has to be a time of punishment, but also of transformation.”
The benefits of the book prize attracted the attention of the country’s top prison administrator, Laurent Ridel. He praised the effort, saying that it respected the rights of incarcerated people to cultural activities while also reducing tensions and improving working conditions for staff. “It’s a win-win. You can’t build anything on humiliation or frustration,” Ridel said.
Some of the incarcerated participants spoke to that humiliation and frustration. “I’m fed up with being here,” said Eddy. “But this felt good.”
Another, who had contemplated suicide, said, “The hardest thing, when you arrive in prison, is that everything is obliterated,” he said in reference to the loss of one’s network of family, friends, work colleagues, and more. “These workshops are fundamental. It changes everything,” he added.
The original idea for the Goncourt de détenus award came from the National Book Center to foster acculturation, critical thinking, and promote civic engagement. The center provided the books for the program and brought in some of the authors for prison visits to discuss their books with the incarcerated jurists.
Philippe Claudel, an author and secretary general of the Goncourt Academy, said he favors “making prisons as open as possible, so to speak, to really make it an integral part of our society, not a closed off and unknown environment that becomes an object of fear or ignorance.”
The power of words to transform is also being promoted at San Quentin. The SQ library hosts a popular book club, with books such as Brian Stevenson’s Just Mercy or Cormick McCarthy’s Blood Meridian recently being read and discussed. The books are provided to participants for free by the nonprofit Friends of San Quentin Prison Library, according to SQ resident Kai Bannon, who works in the library and is one of the organization’s founders.
“We see the library as being key to the effort to raising literacy levels, which helps improve post-release outcomes,” Bannon said. “It’s also important because we live in an impoverished environment and books are one way to enrich that.”
Bannon noted such efforts are especially important given that basic education test scores reviewed by the organization reveal that 49% of SQ’s residents read at lower than an eighth-grade level and 18% below a fourth-grade level. He agreed that incarcerated people have value to add to the literary world, including some of the best books of all time that were written by incarcerated people — such as the Count of Monte Cristo, a classic by Alexander Dumas, or the contemporary hit Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.