March 25, 2014

Bring back books and underwear! Authors petition to get books into UK prisons


Prison booksHave you gotten a book in the mail recently? Oh, how nice. You must not be a prisoner in the UK. The Ministry of Justice recently passed a rule that dictates all prisoners—regardless of their age, alleged crimes, or good behavior—cannot receive books or small packages from the outside.

Families are no longer permitted to send on small items like books, birthday cards, magazines, and new underwear “unless there are exceptional circumstances.” Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Horward League for Penal Reform, wrote about the ban for on Sunday:

Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules. Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison…. Punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre.

Though the “new” rule was passed last November, it received a rousing response this week. A petition against this policy reached 6,000 signatures by yesterday afternoon.

I’m hesitant to call this a book ban, though Crook and her impassioned readers will use that term. Her title reads, “Why has [Chris] Grayling banned prisoners being sent books?” Grayling has banned the receipt of books, not the books themselves. To be precise, let’s say it’s a cost-cutting policy change that restricts incarcerated readers from the considerable pleasure of getting books in the mail.

If Crook’s estimate is correct, prisoners have about sixteen hours a day during the week and twenty hours a day on the weekends that they must stay in their cells. That’s a lot of lost reading time. Inmates are permitted to have twelve books in their rooms at a time, but no more.

Speaking out against Crook’s article, Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright told The Telegraph the idea that prisons are banning books is “complete nonsense…. Under the incentives and earned privileges scheme, if prisoners engage with their rehabilitation and comply with the regime, they can have greater access to funds to buy items, including books.” It’s worth noting that these funds are limited, could be applied to many other items aside from reading material, and are treated by each institution as a privilege.

Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling responded that prisons have never allowed unlimited packages, but now all prisons must adhere to the same policy. “We have introduced consistency across the estate,” he wrote on yesterday. He said libraries were available and, like Wright, pointed out that prisoners are still allowed to buy their own books.

Crook says though there are libraries, due to cuts, “1,600 prisoners with one small library will only get there once every two to three weeks, if they are lucky, and they are only able to take a limited number of books out. Also, prisoners might have a particular interest, like trains or bird watching or foreign languages, and a small prison library wouldn’t have books for their interests.”

That petition received considerable support from well-known authors. Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, calls the rule a “malign and pointless extra punishment, which is not only malign and small-minded but desperately counterproductive.” He even adds a deadline: he expects “every writer in the UK [to be] publicly opposed to this by tea time.”

Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider series, wrote a piece for The Independent yesterday about how difficult it had been to send reading material (including his own books) to a young man who was incarcerated:

Books represent humanity and civilization, two abstracts which may be in short demand in the prison environment. As I have seen from personal experience, they form a vital contact with the outside world and it seems crazy that any government that promotes reading should seek to exclude one particular group. Yes – there are libraries but these are often underfunded and anyway owning a book has its own special value.

Mary Beard tweeted, “Books educate & rehabilitate. Crazy to ban them being sent to prisoners in jail.” Philip Pullman called the new rule “one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government.” Emma Donoghue, author of Room, said more gently, “Reading and study would seem to me to be one of the only ways of spending a prison day.”

Sure, under the Prison Standing Order 6170, “every prison in England and Wales must have a library by law.” But is it necessary to prevent incarcerated readers from receiving their own copies in the mail? Books make a thoughtful gift, and are at least as necessary as fresh socks and underwear.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.