Another Brick in the Wall: Why Are We Restricting Books in Prisons?

There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” -Goethe

The row is long overdue. In November of last year, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling passed legislation that put in place a blanket ban on prisoners receiving small parcels of any kind from the outside. An apparent move to cut down on contraband, it conveniently helped him appease the Tory-Ukip faithful by appearing to toughen up our supposedly cushy-by-comparison prison system. Primary universal victim of this: books. The ban now means prisoners can’t receive reading material from the outside unless they spend their entire, often elusive, wage on a title from an approved catalogue.

Steve Bell 26/03/14

Cartoon by Steve Bell, 2014

Eager to defend this seemingly draconian policy, Grayling recently stressed that “All prisoners can have up to 12 books in their cell, and all prisons have libraries which prisoners have access to. They can buy any book they want to with their prison earnings, with the approval of prison staff”. However, a quick look at this case for the defence highlights its failure to even paper over the cracks. On the justification for the policy, surely employing more people to check parcels for contraband could help challenge the problem without being detrimental to education inside? However, this would be anathema, of course, to Coalition policy of public-sector cuts across the board.

Why the need to arbitrarily limit the number of books (12) a prisoner is allowed? An essential belief in the prison system must put faith in its potential to rehabilitate prisoners, say, for example, by offering the opportunity to further knowledge  through education and learning. By capping the number of books authorized, the law deliberately limits the potential for this to happen. A 2013 report by Criminal Justice Inspection showed that a shocking 60% of British prisoners fall below ‘functional literacy’. The ban will do nothing to improve this state of affairs, and may very well exacerbate it. Further, many prisoners whose literacy is better than this take educational courses during their time inside, such as degrees with the Open University- how does one complete a course reading list when restricted to twelve titles?

Prison reading group

Image: Martin Godwin

It is widely reported that the prison libraries Grayling appears to rate tend to be understaffed and drastically under-supplied. They usually source their content and volunteer staff from local libraries, but this is looking increasingly untenable under the coalition, as so many public libraries up and down the country have closed or are under threat of closure due to local government cuts. Not only that, but access to libraries in prisons is highly limited- one hour a week, again highlighting how restrictive the landscape for prisoners’ rehabilitation through education was before Grayling’s ban.

The ban on receiving books and other parcels from the outside and the limitations placed on access to them inside could also lead to deterioration in the prison environment, as expert on prison literacy Richard Armstrong (Newcastle University) argues:

“The consequences of banning small items being sent into prison, including books, has not been thought through. There is a chronic lack of education and workplaces in prison which mean prisoners are locked up with nothing to do simply because there is no work for them. No matter how willing a prisoner is, without work they cannot afford to buy books…. A blanket ban will negatively affect the morale of prisoners and cause unrest. A scheme aimed to encourage good behaviour will therefore end up achieving the complete opposite…”

“Prisoners have extremely high levels of language impairment and learning disabilities. Literacy classes delivered by further-education colleges and the Toe-by-Toe scheme run by prisoners themselves help improve prisoners’ communication and literacy skills which ultimately reduces re-offending. Books are integral to this process.”

So expert opinion seems to agree with Rights groups, and campaigns for reform like the Howard League, that this is a really lousy idea. The public outcry against this policy of enforced, active ignorance is growing. Writers including Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Linda Grant and Professor Mary Beard have demanded that Grayling drop the ban. A concerted, grassroots effort may yet yield results…

Prisons should of course be punitive. But they must also foster hope through the possibility of rehabilitation. This ban on parcels that will prevent books freely entering prisons from the outside, coupled with the inadequacy of current prison libraries and such high levels of below-par literacy for inmates, is yet another example of how reckless the Tory party can be as it strives to stick with reactionary ideological foundations. Another brick in the wall, as Phillip Pullman summed it up on Twitter:  “one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government”.

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Reflections on the Death Tony Benn

Tony Benn died on Friday and we lost another hero in the fight for social justice at home and peace internationally. A giant of the Labour Movement, an icon who came from the era of progressive, tempered socialism of a New Jerusalem, Benn never stopped campaigning for social justice, never gave up the struggle to make the world a better place; most of his last 13 years after retiring from Westminster were spent as President of the Stop the War Coalition. Who among the current clique of politicians and their of vanguard of Etonian millionaires, who plate up offerings of Cuts to our post-millennial God of Growth, even comes close to Benn’s stature as a consistent champion of conviction over careerism, of deeper democracy, wealth equality and international peace? To inject some dynamism into British politics we need new heroes of the Commons, as Benn evidently was, that might wake up the Thatcherite dinosaurs who’ve taken up residence there for the last few decades.

My generation has lived solely under variations on an unchanging theme; shades of neoliberalism espoused by faithful avatars from Major, via Blair and Brown, to Cameron and Co. Even the idea that a passionately principled and idealistic man like Benn, who frequently challenged the status quo in the political arena, was once entrenched in our political system and came very close to being deputy leader of Labour seems strange now. In this sense, Benn’s death and the incredible outpouring of tributes that have followed it reflect what we have lost under the neoliberal consensus that says selfishness and individual desire are more important than the collective. Horizons for those of us younger people who still invest time and effort thinking and acting on ‘politics’ at all have been curtailed since before we were born, as the political class refuses to challenge the current order’s philosophy of market privilege and laissez-faire individualism uber alles.


Many politicians that have been interviewed since Benn’s death on broadcast media appeared eager to use the opportunity to close their long running contestations with him over policy. Across party boundaries, the narrative that’s been repeated has consistently has been something along the lines of ‘he was a wonderful man but we all disagreed with him’, or insisting as Shirley Williams did that his views were ‘curiously backward’; a highly subjective declaration. But why the need to stress this disagreement and division so much when asked to say just a few words by the media?  It has seemed very much like a closing of the ranks by the current mainstream residing in Westminster, all determined to quell the resurgence of Benn’s radical ideas that are now rightly being given attention again following the his death. Surely the best way to celebrate his memory is to let those ideas bloom:

On the NHS and 1945:

On Democracy:

  • “In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

On the Labour Party:

On Modern War:

  • “I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’ That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”