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.



  1. From a letter Oscar Wilde wrote from Reading Gaol:

    "I have never had the chance of thanking you for the books. They were most welcome. Not being allowed the magazines was a blow, but Meredith's novel charmed me. What a sane artist in temper! He is quite right in his assertion of sanity as the essential in romance. Still up to the present only the abnormal has
    found expression in life and literature. Rossetti's letters are dreadful; obviously forgeries by his brother. I was interested, however, to see how my grand-uncle's Melmoth and my mother's Sidonia have been two of the books that fascinated his youth."

    I think it fair to say that if a more progressive governor had not arrived at Reading Gaol when he did and allowed Wilde reading material, the chances of him leaving prison alive would have been nil. AND he was allowed to receive books sent in by friends.

    Like you, he benefited from someone bending the rules. De Profundis was written as a letter because theoretically Wilde was only allowed to write letters (and have materials removed from him at the end of the day). The new governor would return the previous day's writing along with the materials - as technically the 'letter' had not been completed.

    As Dostoevsky said, blind adherence to the letter of the law simply because it is the law without due consideration to the spirit of the law leads directly to that law being broken and has never led to anything else.

  2. Excellent _- I had not considered the issue about reading prison regulations in the library - I do realise that it would be virtually impossible to get all one needed in one visit - depending on there being enough copies and other prisoners not needing same info simultaneously.

    I recollect that all rules are kept in wing offices, though I realise how impracticable is that route of access - I guess it depends on each local situation, which at best is 'variable'?

  3. Ben, I have just returned from your very interesting presentation in Coventry. I can't find anywhere else to ask you .. so I'll do it now if you don't mind. Just out of interest do you still have any contact with any of the inmate 'friends' from your prison days, or others that have been released ... or are those days and contacts behind you now?

  4. Nice piece, Ben. In reality, restrictions on having books (and other items) sent in from home or ordered by family/friends for delivery have been in place in many nicks for quite some time under the heading of "local policy" in each Facilities List. Back in 2012 the only B-cat local that I found would accept books sent in from home was Lincoln (in every other respect a right shitehole, but sound on books!) Doncaster (Moorland/Lindholme) was a big no-no... nothing allowed in except pre-addressed stamped envelopes, as a very large sign in Reception made very clear.

    I think many lads are wondering what all the current fuss is actually about. The books issue seems to have caught the imagination of liberal, literate middle England, in a way that clean boxers and socks haven't. Perhaps typical of the chattering classes...

    The bigger issue in my opinion is the negative impact on study materials being sent in by organisations like the Prisoners Education Trust and National Extension College. There is already anecdotal evidence of course books and similar material being put straight into stored prop or returned to sender unopened. Privately, the PET will admit this is now starting to be a problem, particularly when packages aren't sent c/o the education departments.

    What no-one yet seems to have picked up on is the impact on D-cats. Previously we were able to full in a reception app and have a reasonable amount of civvy clothing sent in from home or buy it in town while on ROTL. Now lads are arriving from C-cats dressed only in prison gear and can't get private kit unless they use the M&M/Very catalogues using spends account cash. Fine if you have dosh or family support, crap if you don't. Already, many D-cats are filled with lads wearing greys. Inside the nick this might not be a problem, but wait until you apply for ROTL (assuming Grayling doesn't ban it completely)... you can hardly go to town or jump on a train with HMP stenciled across your back. Not allowed! Also, prison kit can't be used for voluntary work in the community or - assuming you can find some and get it approved - paid work. Imagine turning up for work in greys and a nice grey/orange fleece set off by a fetching pair of Ranby Reeboks... not going to happen.

    What Grayling - aided and abetted by NOMS - has managed to do is create a twin-tier system inside open nicks... if you have money, then you can buy civvy clothes and apply for ROTL/work opportunities, but if you have to survive on £8-£10 a week, then you are royally screwed. So much for resettlement work, particularly for lifers/IPPs. Of course, what the new IEP system has really done is create a secondary market in private clothing.

    Still it does provide an opportunity for a bit of altruism... When I was discharged a matter of weeks ago, I took hardly any kit with me - I just handed it out to my mates who I knew would appreciate some buckshee civvy gear. I think I probably clothed six lads so now they can apply for ROTL. Of course, that broke various rules, but such is life as a con.

  5. Gnats have no eyeballs but compound eyes.

  6. @ anonymous May 22, 2014 at 1:47 PM - I think this was my gripe with people like Mark Haddon who seems to think that the 'book ban' (er, it is a parcel ban) came into effect November 2013. It is a very good indicator that actually, these people know very little about prisons.

    It is, of course a long standing policy of many prisons. (How many Cat A prisoners ever got parcels?!) Grayling merely stuck in a blanket ban across the whole estate.

    In my opinion, it's a very good reason why Grayling has been able to treat them with a certain degree of disdain. They don't seem terribly well informed (but then I suppose, neither does Grayling).

    They'd be much better off looking at access to libraries. I'm not sure I know an awful lot of prisoners who spent their time building up huge private book collections in their cells before the ban (well, apart from Ben! :))

    1. Couldn't agree more. In fact on one of the online comments section under a recent Guardian article on the books issue I flagged up how a 20-minute per week library session often becomes one or two per month owing to the famous "operational reasons" - ie the escort screw is too busy making tea and toast to move his arse onto the wing... A nick library could have all the latest reference books in the world, but the real issue is access. However, I also suggested donating masses of books to nick libraries, mainly to embarrass Grayling (although I think he's beyond embarrassment).

      Sadly, the days of mini-libraries in pads are also done for. Under PSI 30/2013 the maximum number of books you can have in possession is fixed at 12 (excluding a Bible/approved religious texts and a dictionary/thesaurus). There seems to be no allowance made for those studying via PET or OU. Still, I find it hard to believe most screws will actually have the energy to count up to 12. I've also known quite a few who found the advanced exercises at the back of the Toe by Toe manual a challenge!

      The levels of popular ignorance about life inside is astonishing. A few media commentators even asked why cons don't use "e-readers" instead of worrying about the ban on books being posted in. I laughed out loud at that one!

    2. Those advanced exercises in the toe by toe manual are, to be fair, where we would expect a competent 18 year old reader (A Level standard) to be. They are pretty high end stuff but most people leave the book before they get to that point as they can read independently.

    3. Are you suggesting that some of our esteemed prison officers with 20+ years service possess less impressive reading skills than "competent 18 year old readers"... surely not! I have read some absolute gems on returned apps... unbelievable that functional illiterates can get jobs in the public sector. Still, it's a dirty job and someone has to do it, I suppose.

  7. Of course, just a simple read of Archer's prison diaries proves the lie as to "parcels" not being allowed into prison...

  8. cheer up everyone! watch this amature video i filmed whilst in HMP DOVEGATE!! enjoy!!

  9. Inmates should have access to any kind of education if they wish and therefore access to the books linked to that level of education.

  10. Mr Grayling has little idea what is going on in prisons, everything is sanitised if he visits, he never sees the problems. Education in both adult and youth prison is outsourced and books and resources are scarce and outdated. Don't ask about ICT, if the system is supposed to rehabilitate it is failing.


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