Books for Prisoners

I saw that every night that I read I was being cleansed of my sins, and that if I didn’t read I would rove the narrow, basalt-stoned, dank streets of the Castle of Sinners. I learned that not reading was to summon one’s sins. I learned that reading was the thing that tied me to life and rendered me sinless. As I read I saw that six-square-metre cell transformed into the world’s biggest centre for hermetic seclusion: a sanctuary, a colossal temple, a school where wise sages sat and debated.

As I read in prison I became myself, I returned to being myself, I added colour and harmony to my stagnant life. As I read I became myself.

(From Reading in Gaol, by Muharrem Erbey, translated from the Turkish by Erda Halisdemir. Published in The Author in Autumn 2014.)

Why does the Minister of Justice in the UK, Chris Grayling ignore the impact of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP), which limits prisoners’ access to books. And why does he ignore the effects of staffing cuts on prisoners’ access to prison libraries? Access to books in prisons is part of a dubious behaviour control policy. I have written about this before, in March 2014, see Books in Prison.

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

And why do Conservative MPs (my MP anyway) not engage with the issues? Actually I know the answer to that question, but it’s still frustrating! And why is Simon Hughes, Lib Dem minister at the Justice Department openly challenging Chris Grayling about so much of his prisons policy, including limiting books to prisoners (reported in the Independent on 7th November 2014).

Why does it matter?

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

I care passionately about books and education. In Norah Colvin’s phrase I am a meliorist. They are civilising influences in a world where powerful forces seem to want to revert to the worst of human nature. This government seems to represent the view that a prisoner forfeits all rights to be treated decently, as if the person is the crime.

I do not believe it is wise to make prisoners resent their treatment. Rather we should provide all possible opportunities for them to read and learn and reflect on life, their own as well as their victims, and the lives of others – in short to return to their best selves. Everyone can benefit from reading about the world, how it is, how it could be and how people live in this world.

Muharrem Erbey kept his best self alive and provides the eloquent vindication of reading in prison quoted above. He was in Diyarbakir High Security Prison for more than four years as a result of his Human Rights activities in Turkey. He determined to turn his situation to advantage by reading.

In the new worlds open to me by the books there was beauty beyond my wildest fantasies. I was free in that world. And everyone was equal. There were no walls. There were no doors that shut on people.

I wrote to my MP

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

I try to take action when I adopt a strong position on an issue. In this case I did what active British citizens can do – I wrote to my MP – Anne Marie Morris. I complained about the reduced access by prisoners to books and libraries as a result of staffing cuts to the prison service. And I asked some pertinent questions about my local prison – Channing Woods.

In February 2013 an inspection report suggested that some prisoners were spending up to 20 hours a day confined to their cells. Since then there has been unrest among the prisoners. And this summer staff voiced their own worries about staffing levels.

I would like answers to the following questions:

How often can prisoners visit the library at Channings Wood Prison?

Who runs the library at Channings Wood Prison, and what is its budget?

From which outlets can prisoners buy books in the prison?

Can prisoners get specialist books from the library if they have a hobby or are doing a course?

I received no answer to these questions, no reference to Channings Wood at all in her letter. Rather my MP responded to some points I had not made, including this statement.

There has been a considerable amount of misinformation on this issue recently. Books are not banned [this I know] – indeed all prisoners have access to the professionally run prison library service.

That’s why I was asking about access to the library at Channings Wood, especially in the light of the prison staff’s own concerns about staffing levels.

I shall have to write again.

Can you take some action?

See what writers and others concerned about this issue have been doing:

  • Salman Rushdie, Jacqueline Wilson, Monica Ali, Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Maureen Freely and Joanne Harris have called for the justice select committee to consider the impact of the IEP scheme in November 2014 (details from English Pen here);
  • There was a silent protest during a House of Commons justice select committee hearing in June 2014;
  • Leading writers (Mark Haddon, AL Kennedy, Rachel Billington), protested at Downing Street, also in June 2014;
  • Publishers led by Pavilion Books organised a fundraiser event called A Night in the Cells in May 2014.
Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Campaigning has brought a small concession: prisoners will not in future be limited to 12 books per cell.

See also The Howard League for Penal Reform and English Pen for details about the campaign activities.

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.


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Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading

5 Responses to Books for Prisoners

  1. Eileen

    Excellent and moving. Thank you Caroline.
    My dear friend Victoria, who is a magistrate, said to me when I was talking about volunteering that the best thing I could do was to help people who were in prison improve their reading – that would help them keep from reoffending – as well as improving their skills it would open up new worlds to them. It is good to take action in this area and I applaud your attempts to get your MP to address your questions rather than skirting round the issue.

  2. A timely reminder that this is still a current and important issue. Back when the story first broke, I heard Mallory Blackman and Alex Wheatle speak movingly from different but direct experience of the importance of books for prisoners and I tried to speak up about it myself. But life moved on, I got drawn into other things and it slipped from my mind. Thank you for bringing it back into focus for me.

  3. This is a very moving post, Caroline, with a very strong call to action. The quote by Erbey you used to introduce the post is powerful, and clearly presents a case for the power of books to change lives. I remember reading your previous post at the time and thinking what an important role books and reading play in the rehabilitation of prisoners; to allow them to become, as Erbey said, themselves. Many prisoners may have offended because schools had failed to give them tools for living effective lives. Maybe a chance to learn, through reading and books, what had earlier been denied them will not only empower them, but society as a whole. I’m with your meliorist attitude on this one!

  4. chooch

    I would not use the quasi-religious language of Muharrem Erbey but I get his drift. For me books were weapons-literary bombs that shattered my innocence then provided me the ammunition to understand and criticise those who use imprisonment as a weapon.
    The Magistrate referred to by Eileen is so right recommending that she volunteer to help prisoners with their reading and writing. I am always startled by the amount of people I know in my own City who cannot read but in HMP the amount is far greater. Selfishly, it diverted me and gave me great pleasure composing letters for other Cons who were brave enough to ask me for help.
    I believe, however, that there is nothing better than talking to others and having a rib cracking laugh.

    • Caroline

      Thanks to all who has responded so far to this post. And especially to chooch, who has used very explosive imagery to support the case for books for prisoners.
      And thanks too for the reminder about the importance of sharing talk and laughter. My great-grandfather used to say that reading was like having a conversation with the author.

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