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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