books in prison 25-03-2014

in november of 2013 new rules banned families and friends from sending books to prisoners. i read about it in the following article by frances crook of the howard league for penal reform:

why has grayling banned prisoners being sent books?

i then spent the next day helping the howard league gather writers' signatures for an open letter to the daily telegraph. the following morning i was asked onto the today programme on radio 4 to discuss the issue. i got considerablty less time to speak than jeremy wright the prisons minister so i'm going to put my thoughts down at greater length here.

we give books to children and we encourage other people to give books to children because we think of books as an unequivocal good which makes them better educated, more rounded people. yet the ministry of justice seeks to improve the behaviour of prisoners byrestristing access to books as if they were a different species of human being.

even prisoners in guantanamo bay can receive books as gifts.

this is not just a punishment for prisoners. it's a punishment for their families who have done nothing wrong - parents, wives, husbands, children. there's a great scheme running in many uk prisons called storybook dads (link here) in which dads in prison who have young children can read a book, record that reading on a cd or dvd and have it sent home so that their son or daughter can listen to, or watch, their father reading 'where the wild things are' or 'the very hungry caterpillar' while they have a copy of the book on their lap. but if that son or daughter reads 'we're going on a bear-hunt' and wants to send dad a copy so they can read it together, they can't because this is forbidden as a means, apparently, of improving their father's behaviour.

a book is not just an object. it's not a packet of fags or a bar of chocolate. sharing is what makes books work. it's not simply that i read and that you read, but that i read something and love it (or hate it) passionately and want you to read it, or vice versa, that we have a deeply private experience yet we can share it. this is one of the things which makes a book a near-magical object, and not a consumable.

there are big literacy problems in prison. 1 in 5 prisoners admit to problems with reading and writing. many more have problems they don't admit to. nearly half of all prisoners in uk prisons have english skills below gcse level. and it doesn't take a genius to work out that poor literacy skills increase your chances of going to prison and going back to prison. it's not just that poor literacy skills prevent you getting jobs, they prevent you even finding out about jobs and applying for them.

and yes, prisoners can buy books in prison. but if they are lucky enough to get a job inside they will earn £8 a week. they can get a small amount of extra money remitted from home but they are limited to a maximum spend of between £10 and £15 a week depending upon their earnt status. they have to use this money to buy everything - toothpaste, clothes, coffee, phonecalls (which are more expensive in prison)... if they do somehow save enough money to buy books they have to do so from an approved catalogue the contents of which are a secret. as is the supplier (the minister was asked about this catalogue but refused to answer).

i've been into prisons. in my small experience they contain a minority of very unpleasant people, some very damaged people but a majority of shockingly normal people. the press talks in terms of 'us' and 'them'. there is no 'us' and 'them'. and whatever you happen to think of people in prison, sooner or later they will be liivng round the corner from you. do you want them humanely rehabilitated or do you want them under-educated and resentful?

you don't reintegreate people into society by isolating them from society.

to repurpose a line from the great billy bragg, 'you don't turn criminals into citizens by treating them this way'.