International writers and former prisoners of conscience speak out on necessity of books in prison

On the occasion of World Book Night, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip and British theatre producer David Cecil are amongst former prisoners and detainees to have written pieces to support English PEN and the Howard League for Penal Reform’s campaign to lift restrictions on sending books to prisoners in the UK.

In order to draw attention to the current situation for prisoners in the UK, English PEN and the Howard League for Penal Reform invited some of the many cases PEN has supported to write about the value of reading and receiving books in prison. A full list of the writers is below.

English PEN is currently working with the Howard League for Penal Reform on the Books for Prisoners campaign, in protest at restrictions on sending books to prisoners in the UK. These regulations were introduced by the Ministry of Justice in November 2013 as part of a crackdown on what ministers have described as prisoners’ ‘perks and privileges’.

English PEN and the Howard League are still waiting for a response to a letter to Secretary of State for Justice, the Right Honourable Chris Grayling, requesting a meeting, which was signed by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Carol Ann Duffy, Mark Haddon, Maureen Freely and Frances Crook.

Today, English PEN will also be joining thousands of readers in giving away books as part of this year’s World Book Night celebrations. The charity has once again pledged to send books to writers at risk – one of the oldest and most tangible ways English PEN shows it support to brave colleagues around the world

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said: ‘These very moving testimonies are further evidence that books are a lifeline. The response we have had from around the world demonstrates the significant difference that literature can make for prisoners. We’re disappointed that the government has as yet failed to respond to our request for a meeting to address our concerns.’


Former and current English PEN cases who have written pieces in support of the campaign:

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Russia)

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova  is an artist, activist and member of Pussy Riot. She was convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after a performance in Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and was released last December having served the majority of her two-year prison sentence. Since her release, Tolokonnikova has co-founded prisoners’ rights group Zona Prava (Zone of Rights).

Tolokonnikova and fellow Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina were a major campaign focus for English PEN, who produced the award-winning anthology Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot to raise awareness of and funds for the group. Since her release, Tolokonnikova has co-founded of prisoners’ rights group Zona Prava (Zone of Rights).

Iryna Khalip (Belarus)

Iryna Khalip is a journalist, who was charged with organising protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko after his re-election in 2010. She was held under house arrest and handed down a two-year suspended prison sentence. Charges against her were dropped last year. Iryna Khalip was awarded the 2013 PEN/Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage by Sir Tom Stoppard in recognition of her vocal criticism of the government in Belarus in spite of intimidation and imprisonment.

David Cecil (Uganda/UK)

David Cecil is a theatre producer who was arrested in Uganda following the production of a play with a gay character in 2012. He was charged with ‘disobeying lawful orders’. The charges were subsequently dropped and Cecil was deported last year.

Teresa Toda (Basque Country)

Journalist and board member of the Basque PEN centre, Toda was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2007 for co-operating with an armed organisation, reduced to six years in April 2009. She was released on the completion of her sentence last year.

Kunle Ajibade (Nigeria)

Nigerian editor and journalist Ajibade was arrested in 1995 and given a life sentence on charges of being an accessory to treason. He was released in 1998, and is now the Executive Editor and Director of TheNEWS / P.M.News.

Martin Schibbye (Sweden/Ethiopia)

Martin Schibbye is a Swedish journalist who, together with the photographer Johan Persson, was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. Their reportage about oil was transformed into a story about ink, and their daily lives turned into a fight for survival inside the notorious Kality prison in Addis Ababa. Both were pardoned after 14 months of confinement. Schibbye and Persson have recently published a book about their prison experience, 438 Days, which was shortlisted for the 2013 August Prize.

Jorge Olivera Castillo (Cuba)

Independent journalist and poet Jorge Olivera Castillo was detained during the Black Spring crackdown in Cuba in 2003. Released in December 2004 on health grounds, he and his family remain under surveillance.

Alan Shadrake (Singapore)

Alan Shadrake was arrested on charges of ‘criminal defamation’ on 18 July 2010, a day after the publication of his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which was critical of the Singapore judicial system.

Enoh Meyomesse (Cameroon)

Imprisoned writer and activist Enoh Meyomesse is currently the focus of a major English PEN campaign. More details of his case and how to show your support are available here.

Enoh is also one of the many writers at risk we will be sending books to as part of this year’s World Book Night celebrations. Find out more here.

Büşra Ersanlı (Turkey)

Professor Büşra Ersanlı is a Turkish academic and political scientist specialising in nationalism, historiography, political theory, and Kurdish political participation, politics and language rights. In October 2011, Ersanlı was arrested as part of a larger crackdown on pro-Kurdish politicians, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals known as the KCK operation, which has been underway since 2009 and has led to thousands of arrests and trials. She was released pending trial in July 2012.

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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76 Comments on “International writers and former prisoners of conscience speak out on necessity of books in prison”

  1. A long time ago I spent a night in a police cell: it certainly wasn’t prison, nor was it an experience I wished to repeat. To spend a week, a year, a lifetime in such confinement is unimaginable. Books are part of the healing process, they make people well. Reading is not a perk or privilege; its an escape a brief respite from an often brutal environment.

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