Unlimited Books for Prisoners

Do you know that poem called Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh? It begins

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse …

Well, this is one of those times. Our best efforts have not gone amiss. Thanks to some good campaigning, a legal challenge and, yes credit is due, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Justice), all restrictions have been relaxed preventing prisoners from receiving books. The Campaign Books For Prisoners has been successful.

Books for Prisoners

Let’s credit English PEN and The Howard League for Penal Reform for their vigorous and engaging campaign. The Howard League was presented with the Charity Award for its campaign in June 2015.

The judicial review was brought by Barbara Gordon-Jones, a prisoner at HMP Send, and her lawyer, Samuel Genen. As a result in December 2014 the High Court declared unlawful the restrictions introduced by Chris Grayling (previous Secretary of State for Justice). But feet were dragged, information only slowly disseminated and practice took time to change.

And then, following the general Election, the Secretary of State for Justice was replaced. Michael Gove said, when he announced the change in policy,

We have more than 80,000 people in custody. The most important thing we can do once they are in prison is make sure that they are usefully employed and that they get the literacy and numeracy and other skills they need for success in work.

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

It is a little sad that the rationale for the new policy is framed in instrumental terms, and all about work. As a good old-fashioned liberal leftie I want books and education to be promoted for their own sakes, not just to improve the work chances of prisoners – or children and young people and students of all ages. But hey-ho, the policy has changed. The statement went on,

One of the big influences on my thinking on social policy is Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.

He believed that we should see all human beings as assets, not liabilities. I agree. Every individual has something to offer, every one of us can earn respect.

People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.

From 1st September families and friends will be allowed to send books directly to prisoners and no longer be obliged to go through approved retailers. The limited of 12 books in cells has been lifted, but prisoners must not exceed the limits on the volume of personal possessions permitted.

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Why are books important in prisons?

Let’s put aside the views of people who think being economically productive is the main duty of an adult human. Let’s ask for other reasons why books are important in prisons.

This is the view of someone who knows. Chandra Bozelko wrote this post for an American blog, Quartz, on her experiences of prison. She argues for more support for literacy training, not only for Obama’s proposed degree courses, in jail.

I was never an avid fiction reader before being incarcerated. But once inside, the last page of every novel I read arrived with an emotional thud, because I knew I would have to re-submerge myself into prison reality. Real life was never as good as the story I had been reading. To finish a book was often so disheartening that sometimes I wondered if I should even start another one, knowing how I would feel when I finished. …

Reading can save an inmate. A novel is a buoy in prison; it keeps you afloat because you can enter someone else’s life without ever leaving the facility. But not everyone in prison can read a whole book. Because I’ve witnessed that struggle first-hand, perhaps that’s why I’m one of the few who know that reforming the US corrections system means focusing on basic adult literacy—and therefore that providing university-level courses to inmates isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

We need to say this again and again – access to books is important for everyone. Books are good for you! A Report to the Reading Agency by BOP Consulting, funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation, notes that the benefits of reading include:

  • increased empathy,
  • improved relationships,
  • reduced symptoms of depression, and
  • improved wellbeing.

I’d like some of that! That’s why libraries are important. Everyone should be able to access book easily. That’s why literacy activities in prisons are important. That’s why prison libraries are important. That’s why prisoners should have adequate time out of the cells to visit libraries (reduced it appears because of cuts to prison staffing).

Check out the list of benefits again. Not only should prisoners enjoy books for their own sake, but their life chances can be enhanced by reading. Books for prisoners!

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Two notes

Note 1: American Enterprise Institute is an American conservative think tank. Arthur Brooks might be described as a compassionate conservative. According to Wikipedia, in 2006 he wrote Who Really Cares: the surprising truth about Compassionate Conservatism. And he earned his living for a while as a French Horn player. Hmm …

Note 2: The decision by Gove means that books are no longer part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, or to put it another way they become an entitlement rather than a reward.

Related posts

Books for Prisoners November 2014

Books in Prison March 2014

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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5 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading

5 Responses to Unlimited Books for Prisoners

  1. As someone who has spent all her life (minus the first four years) in education, I find it very hard to credit Michael Gove for anything, but where this is concerned I am prepared to make an exception. It restores my faith in human nature to know that even he has a good side.

  2. Hania

    Do prisoners have unlimited access to the internet?
    Not sure any of us are entitled to unlimited access to everything … many websites and books are racist and/or dangerous I my opinion.
    Fundamentalist religious views for instance.
    I don’t think this is an easy question but I think there’s a line – so the issue is for me, how and where to draw it.

  3. Great move! Congratulations on your part in its success. If it helps but one prisoner improve life’s lot it is worth it.

  4. Eileen

    Excellent Caroline. And Yes, I agree with Alex, I also find it very hard to credit Michael Gove for anything, but am prepared to make an exception in this case.

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