Monday, May 19, 2014

Books for Prisoners

Books for Prisoners

With unintended irony I begin writing this at a cafĂ© in the sunshine – opposite a small bookshop. I am carrying so much tech that if war breaks out, I’ll be targeted for being a major communications hub. Smartphone, tablet, laptop, Wifi hotspot…..short of welding a satellite dish to my hat, I’m about as connected as its possible to be.

The world is at my fingertips. I can send messages via dozens of different routes, and receive through as many more. If I want to know the circumference of a gnats eyeball or the daily doings of a Chinese Emperor, its but a matter of seconds before enlightenment flits across one of my screens.  We live in a remarkable age of information.

Or most of us do. For the high prison walls do more than cast a shadow over those within their grasp. The walls are a physical manifestation of the deliberate isolation of prisoners. Not just physically, but in the very sharp sense of  cutting off prisoners from the very essence of our modern life – information.

Without the internet, prisoners are limited to ye older channels of information . Imagine sitting in a concrete box. Alone. Stripped of autonomy, control, the limits of your freedom of choice restricted to four paces back and forth from the steel door to the barred window. You have a question. How do you break free from your tomb to search for enlightenment?

In defending his policy to restrict the ability of prisoners to have books posted in from outside, Grayling claims an awful lot, but mysteriously stays silent on so much more. Perhaps he is uninformed. Perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn- vote grubbing triumphs all in the Ministry.

The two main claims made by the Ministry to justify this further restriction on prisoners accessing information are both mendacious. Firstly, it is claimed that books posted in are an avenue for drug smuggling. Potentially true, of course. Which is why all prisons have an x-ray machine and access to sniffer dogs. Perhaps prison staff just can’t be bothered doing their job? A lapse now signed off on by the Minister himself.

Ignoring these expensive security measures for a moment – as Grayling does – the other fatal blow to this silly “security” scaremongering is for prisoners families and friends to order books to be delivered direct from publishers. Or is the Ministry going to hint that Penguin and Amazon are fronts for the Medellin cartel?

In essence, the security argument is a nonsense. It only gets headspace because of widespread ignorance of the details of prison life. In the knowledge that prisons have scanners and dogs, Graylings argument is revealed to be utterly threadbare. Not a lie, but mendacious nonetheless.

Graylings second argument is that this book ban is largely irrelevant – anything prisoners need can be obtained through the prison library.  He will look you in the eye with cold sincerity and tell you this. Let’s assume ignorance rather than deceit on his part….though it is a very fine line with Grayling.

Access to the library is a statutory right under the Prison Rules. But then the Rules need to be given life by prison staff. Parliament may propose, but it’s the screw on the landing that makes it happen. Or not. Unlocking prisoners and escorting them to the library is at the top of no ones list of things to do. The library should be accessed once a week. Assuming that happens, the time is extremely limited – 30 minutes is a good run – and staff hustle you along. The staff rest room doesn’t occupy itself, you know….

If decency and the Rules actually do prevail for once, and library time is given and even fostered, the prisoner is then at the mercy of time and the library service. In this age of mangerialism, the rules and regulations that govern every minute aspect of prison life fill shelves. If a prisoner wants to look up, say, the process for temporary release, he will need several library visits merely to read that Order.

A specialist book would have to be ordered from another library. It may take weeks. Reference works cannot be so ordered, leaving the serious student bereft. The library service is not to be dismissed as a vital source of information, but its limitations are rarely recognised by “outsiders”, who are used to a more rounded library system.

These issues came to a head for me during my Masters (and later my incompleted PhD). The books I needed were extremely specialist and many only available from the university library. Under the Rules, these would have been unobtainable. It was only through the good efforts of a member of staff that I was able to complete my Masters – with the member of staff risking career and income by indulging in wholescale book smuggling to and from the university.

Access to the library is does not fill the information gap created by Grayling’s ban on books being sent in. The material and the time available is insufficient for prisoners to even read the rules governing their lives, let along anything else. Does Grayling know this? Do his advisors? Do they care?

The grand lie, the mendacious nature of this policy to deny prisoners books, is that it has nothing to do with drug smuggling nor library access. And few unfamiliar with the landscape of prisons will realise just what they aren’t being told.

To make it explicit, then. This policy of Graylings is everything to do with increasing control on prisoners. Nothing more, nothing less. For since 1995, privileges must be earned through good behaviour. In practice, this means that the higher up the privilege scale a prisoner climbs, the more of his own money he can spend – up to the maximum of £25 per week. Most prisoners do not have such money at their disposal. But what little they do have is spread thinly. Clothing, bits of food and drink, TV rental, tobacco, stamps, phonecalls….all must come from a prisoners limited monies. Throw in the cost of books, and the idea that prisoners can order from publishers becomes revealed as being ridiculous.

If families and friends were allowed to order books for prisoners, and pay for them, this would “undermine” the privileges system. That is what this policy is about. It is intended to make prisoners utterly dependent on the prison. The consequences for education, learning, self improvement, are all irrelevant.

This policy is contemptible. Inserting itself into a discourse centred on “security” concerns, it’s actual purpose is about control – plain and simple. That it cripples the already severely  limited opportunity for post basic skills learning is a matter of no consequence to Grayling.

Either Grayling doesn’t realise this, or he just doesn’t give a damn. I dread to think which. For ignorance can be as dangerous as indifference; and with free access to information, Grayling has no excuse for his lack of understanding.

Books, knowledge, information….the bedrock of our modern world. To strip these from prisoners and yet hoping they can change, blend back into society and positively contribute, is ridiculous on the face of it. This policy must not stand.