Blog: A handy link round-up on the books to prisoners issue

This week has seen a huge outcry from the literary community in response to recent Department of Justice guidelines on allowing books to be sent to UK prisoners.  The controversy was sparked by an article on politics.co.uk by Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform: ‘Why has Grayling banned prisoners being sent books?‘.  This prompted discussions on both the Today Programme (with PEN member Mark Haddon) and the Radio 5 Live, with Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright defending the Government.

PEN trustee Lindsay Mackie, who has for many years chaired the committee that runs our literacy programme in UK prisons, wrote for Comment is Free explaining that books were a vital rehabilitation tool for prisoners.

A large group of prominet authors, including many PEN members, has written to the Daily Telegraph, urging Grayling to revist the policy.  A different but equally prominent group wrote to the Evening Standard, where Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti also condemned the policy as being ineffectual for either punishment or rehabilitation of prisoners.  There is also a petition on Change.org with (at the time of writing) nearly 20,000 signatures.

Secretary of State Chris Grayling has since defended his policy on politics.co.uk: ‘The ban on sending prisoners books is part of my rehabilitation revolution‘.  Meanwhile, his shadow, Sadiq Khan MP, criticised the policy: ‘Grayling has shown his true colours with prison book ban‘.

On the Guardian Reality Check pages, Juliette Jowit logged the claims and counter-claims surrounding this issue:

Are books banned in prisons? Patently no. It is though much harder to get access to them: how hard depends on how well stocked a prison library is, how well staffed it is, how much time prisoners are allowed to use it for, whether the librarians are motivated to find titles, how much money a prisoner has to spend, and – under this new policy – how well the prison authorities judge an inmate is behaving.

Jowit also helpfully linked to the actual policy document at the heart of the row: the Incentives and Earned Privileges rules [Word Doc].  Writing in the Financial Times, legal blogger David Allen Green offers some thoughts on how this policy came about:

The reason is little more than stupidity in policy-making. There is a need for improving literacy among prisoners, and there is a need for an incentive scheme for prison behaviour, but nobody at the Ministry of Justice took a moment to see how the two objectives could be reconciled. Instead books were casually included in the incentive scheme, just as if they were some luxury item.

Green concludes with a damning statement on prisons and rehabilitation:

In practice, prison is an expensive way of making reoffending more likely. If a politician’s sincere wish is to reduce crime, then there should be less use of prison, not more. And there should be better use of prisons to the extent they are used at all.

This leads nicely onto a piece by Marek Kazmierski, the managing editor of Not Shut Up and the former Head of Diversity at Feltham Young Offenders Institute.  Kazmierski suggests that anyone who values books and the power of literacy and literature to change lives should look to the bigger picture:

Option number two is to think creatively, and rather than try tackling the government head on, go around the problem and score a much bigger win.

What if we chose to enhance and develop prison libraries instead? Launched a campaign to have books sent in, by everyone, as donations to their local prisons (see similar project in central Europe, which has gathered over 50,000 books in this way – Books Behind Bars)? This would have a multitude of positive and sustainable effects. Prison libraries themselves would become celebrated. Communities would become aware and involved in their local prisons. Millions of books right now languishing on private shelves around the country would find new homes. … We must first listen to the prisoners themselves, find out how they feel about these changes, what they think is a sustainable solution, involve prison librarians and go on to develop complex, long-term strategies that will effect positive, engaged and lasting change.

As Marek says, it is important to hear the views of prisoners themselves—former inmates, and those currently serving sentences.  Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, carries a letter from Nicholas Jordan in HMP Oakwood:

After reading a lot of complaints in your pages about the new IEP system it struck me that some prisoners are saying they can only have 12 books in possession – lucky sods! Here at HMP Oakwood we do not have that luxury. There is no system in place here to purchase books from an approved supplier. We can buy games consoles or DVD players but cannot get books for love nor money. And neither can we have them sent in. The prison library is poorly stocked and trying to order an unstocked title can lead to a 3 month wait, though you usually get a slip back saying the title is ‘unavailable’. I find all this ridiculous, especially if you want to use your time to educate yourself. So much for a ‘forward thinking prison’.

Charlie Gilmour (son of Pink Floyd’s David) spent some time in prison, following a conviction for violent disorder.  In the Evening Standard, he writes: ‘Cut out books from prisons and all that’s left is drugs‘.

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