Books for Prisoners by Angela Caldin

Prison-readingjI’ve been thinking a lot about prisoners today, in particular about the fact that they can no longer be sent books (among other things) by family and friends. I’ve been wondering whether, if I was a prisoner, I would care about being deprived of books or whether I’d be just as happy passing the hours of incarceration watching TV and vegetating.

The Ministry of Justice announced changes last year which prohibited prisoners receiving parcels (except in certain specific circumstances), including those from family and friends. One reason given was the danger of drugs being secreted in the parcels. The ban on receiving parcels does not affect just books, but also birthday presents, underwear, clothing, writing paper and pens and anything else that a family member or friend might want to send in. Prisoners are still allowed to receive letters. They can buy approved items themselves or through a supplier approved by the prison governor (many prisons allow prisoners to order items from the Argos catalogue). However, an employed prisoner is paid about £8-10 per week which doesn’t go very far and though they can receive cash, it’s unlikely that their families on the outside will have much cash to spare.

Reality of Prison Life

It is well known that because of shrinking budgets, staff cuts and increasing numbers, prisoners have been spending up to 20 hours a day in their cells during the week. At weekends they can be cooped up from Friday lunchtime until Monday morning. Being able to read a book would surely help to pass the long empty hours and provide an alternative to endless TV. The Ministry of Justice argues that prisoners are allowed to have 12 books in their cell and can visit the prison library. But it is well known that library opening hours are restricted and even when open, these facilities are sometimes not well stocked. This has led The Howard League for Penal Reform, together with many leading authors including the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Bennett, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Mark Haddon, to mount a campaign to end these restrictions. Tens of thousands of people have shown their support for the campaign by signing a petition and the government’s stance has also been condemned by international writers and former prisoners of conscience.

We know that literacy rates among prisoners are notoriously low and that cuts have curtailed classes in prison to teach literacy and numeracy. What do we want for prisoners exactly? Do we send them to prison simply to be punished or do we hope that while in prison they might be reformed and rehabilitated so that they are released at the end of their sentence with some tools to enable them to avoid a life of crime. To make progress, to be better educated, to have increased hope and self-respect, they need books and they need to be able to read them.

Imposing an Extra Punishment

Geoffrey Robertson QC, a noted human rights lawyer has said: ‘Mr Grayling (Secretary of State for Justice) is not a lawyer; he is a politician who seems to think he is above the law. He has no power to impose additional punishment on prisoners over and above that which is imposed by the courts. The action has nothing to do with prison security or any other legitimate purpose. The right to read is precious in this country and for prisoners it is a way to lift themselves out of the slough of criminality. To deny them the books they need in order to improve themselves is both unreasonable and counter-productive.’

There, I think, is the nub of it: to deprive someone of their liberty is a massive step to take in itself; to remove them from their family, friends and job (if they happen to have one) can have the most serious and lasting repercussions. I am not saying that we should be soft on criminals or denying that sometimes crimes are so serious that only prison is appropriate. What I am saying is that taking away liberty is sufficient in itself, and that taking away access to books and essential items is a deprivation too far. About 150 years ago, Dostoevsky wrote: ‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’ There are some countries such as Brazil and Italy where prisoners can get a day or two off their sentence for every book they read. How civilised can we consider our society to be when it seeks to restrict access to books and further punish those whom the courts have already sentenced.

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