Should prisoners have access to books?

The bees are buzzing around my bonnet today. Earlier I had a bit of a go at Danny Alexander for falling in with the Better Together dourness in the Scottish Referendum campaign. Now, I have Chris Grayling in my sights. The Justice Secretary, under the guise of making the prisoners’ incentive scheme more “effective” has banned a number of things. The issue being given most prominence is that prisoners can no longer be sent books. The Howard League for Penal Reform’s Chief Executive Frances Crook condemned the change at

Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules. Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison.

An inspection report published on March 18th on Wetherby prison, which holds 180 young boys, praised the jail for only containing the children in their cells for 16 hours a day during the week and 20 hours a day at weekends. Whilst many will not want to read a book to pass these endless hours, many boys I have met in prison do indeed read avidly.

I did a bit of digging, but all I unearthed was the official Ministry of Justice statement which rather sniffily suggested that it was all fine because prisoners can have 12 books at any one time. And they can buy them with the funds they earn every week for their prison work.They said:

The notion we are banning books in prisons is complete nonsense. All prisoners can have up to 12 books in their cells at any one time, and all prisoners have access to the prison library.

Under the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, if prisoners engage with their rehabilitation and comply with the regime they can have greater access to funds to buy items including books.

I’ve been looking up the Ministry of Justice guidelines on prison libraries. Prisoners have to be able to access them for at least half an hour a week. There should be at least 10 books per prisoner with an assumption that books will last for 5 years before being replaced. If you’re locked up for 20 hours a day, I can’t imagine that that is going to keep you going for particularly long.

If we can’t send books in to prisoners, maybe we should donate them to prisoners instead, just to make a point to Mr Grayling, as well as to widen the stock available to prisoners. Here’s a list of all the prisons in England and Wales. Choose one near you. Pick something off your bookshelf that you don’t need and send it in for their library.

Ah, but hang on a bit. What if the prisoners need a specific book? My Marian Keyes novel or James Carville polemic on US election campaigning will not be much help if they actually need a copy of Catcher in the Rye for their GCSE English course. My internet wanderings took me to Haven, a charity which last year sent over 1700 specific books to help prisoners. Their annual report has some letters from the prisoners who have benefitted, like this one:

I’d like to thank you for sending me the Plumbing Revision Guide. This book proved to be a very valuable asset to me, as I achieved my levels 2 & 3 plumbing qualifications. I feel very grateful towards Haven Distribution, as without your charity, I’d have struggled to afford to buy this book myself as a serving prisoner.

Once you’ve taken a breath and got over the rage that these essential books or their courses aren’t supplied by the educational services within the prison, you have to wonder what prisoners like him are going to do now. Are we actually serious about rehabilitation or are we not? If prisoners can’t access what they need to rehabilitate themselves, then surely their chances of re-offending must go up.

Now, the book thing has all the attention and a petition and writers going mad about it. There are arguably worse elements to Grayling’s reforms. Back to Frances Crook:

Last November new rules were introduced so that families are no longer permitted to send in small items to prisoners. Children are not allowed to send a homemade birthday card…

The rules apply to clothing too. Prisoners are no longer permitted to have underwear sent in and so have to wear pants and socks worn by many other people. Women prisoners are particularly hard hit by this rule as they are not provided with a uniform and are dependent on family for underwear and outerwear. If underwear cannot be sent in, women are forced to wear the same pants and bras for months.

The punishment bit of prison is deprivation of liberty. That’s it. What on earth harm is it to allow a 5 year old to make a birthday card for their mummy or daddy in prison? Surely the thought they put into it can only strengthen that bond while their parent is gone. And are we so mean spirited that we don’t think prisoners deserve that teary, pride-filled moment as they take in the glitter-splattered creation?

You’ve probably guessed that my answer to the question I asked is an unequivocal yes. Books are an essential part of life for me. They provide solace, knowledge, a workout for the imagination and, yes, distraction. Grayling needs to be careful about restricting too many of life’s essentials or he may well end up with riots on his hands.


About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem internationalist, mum, LGBT+ ally, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger. Servant to two spaniels. She/her.
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