Books For Prisoners Campaign

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Restrictions on families and friends sending books to prisoners 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’.

‘We believe this is a misguided policy. Reading goes hand in hand with education and rehabilitation, whilst research shows that informal learning reduces re-offending. It can also be a calming influence in a chaotic environment. We should be doing everything we can to encourage reading in prisons, and certainly not be restricting prisoners’ access to books. We are therefore calling on the government to reverse this policy in order to end restrictions which prevent families and friends sending books, and other essentials to prisoners.’

From a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron signed by more than 40 leading writers.

English PEN and our campaign partners at the Howard League for Penal Reform have requested a meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling MP, to discuss our concerns and suggested changes to the policy but he has, to date, refused to meet with us. We have also taken the campaign to Downing Street where we were joined by authors and English PEN members including Mark Haddon, Sir David Hare, Honorary Vice-President Rachel Billington and A. L. Kennedy to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister.  The letter, co-signed by more than 40 authors, called for a reversal of the policy and expressed dismay that the Grayling has declined to meet with campaigners. The Prime Minister’s response is available here.

The campaign has been supported by leading writers from the UK and around the world, with authors including Martin Amis and Elif Shafak pledging their support by writing to the Ministry of Justice detailing which books they would send to a prisoner in the UK and why, if they were able to. Former prisoners of conscience  including Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and last year’s PEN/Pinter Prize winner Iryna Khalip are among those to have written movingly about the importance of reading in prison. One of our current cases of concern, imprisoned Cameroonian poet Enoh Meyomesse, has also added his voice, explaining that books in prison ‘are like oxygen, they cannot be replaced’ .

We are currently planning the next stages of the campaign – check back soon for more updates. In the meantime, you can show your support by signing this petition; tweeting your support with the hashtag #booksforprisoners; donating a book to the new Book Rooms at HMP Wormwood Scrubs; or supporting our work in UK prisons.

English PEN’s work in UK prisons 

For more than a decade, English PEN has been sending writers and their books into Wormwood Scrubs and other prisons across the UK through our Readers and Writers programme. We have also worked with Oxford University Press to send free dictionaries to prisoners, and run an annual prison writing competition which receives hundreds of entries from across the UK each year. Through these initiatives, English PEN and the writers we work with witness first-hand the incredible value reading and receiving books can have for prisoners.

As a result of the restrictions on prisoners receiving books from family and friends, our work and initiatives such as the new Book Rooms at HMP Wormwood Scrubs are currently some of the few ways of getting books to prisoners from the outside.

If you are interested in helping us to continue our vital work taking writers and books into prisons, please email cat@englishpen.org for more information.