March 28, 2014

Prison reading isn’t exactly vacation reading


vacation readingEarlier this week, we reported that prisoners in the UK are no longer allowed to receive books in the mail (nor underwear, birthday cards, and so on). The policy doesn’t seem like an accidental ban. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling tightened up prison policies in action last November, and he’s sticking to that.

Dubbing prisons “holiday camps,” he said new policies would make time in jail less like a vacation. “For too long the public has seen prisoners spending their days languishing in their cells watching TV, using illegal mobile phones to taunt their victims on Facebook or boasting about their supposedly easy life in prisons. This is not right and it cannot continue.”

Reading transports you, and that’s too much like an actual plane trip to a tropical destination, or a hot car trip connecting with your family. The family you need to bond with just in case you are ever in prison, because prison uniforms don’t include underwear (at least for women) and you’re totally dependent on packages from the outside to provide you with fresh skivvies. And books. You are also really, really going to need reading material.

The petition to get books from the outside back in prison is up to 20,000 signatures. Authors as big as Mark Haddon are writing memorable lines like, “Even prisoners in Guantanamo Bay can receive books as gifts.”

But the best response to this mix-up so far isn’t from an author. It’s from the former Prison Governor of Pentonville Gareth Davies, who happens to be a remarkably strong letter-writer. In a letter to the editor of the Times, which comes to us via Linda Grant, he writes:

Sir, I retired from the Prison Service in 2006 and so can be forgiven for being unaware of the Justice Secretary’s barbarous attitude towards the punitive elements of a prison sentence. Mr MacShane told of the deliberate deprivation of books for prisoners, and this filled me with shame that such a thing was being perpetrated in British people’s names.

Mr MacShane’s account shows a system that has discarded an important principle by which I lived for 26 years: that prisoners are incarcerated as punishment and not for punishment. Any deviation from this, however slight, leads, for example to such tortures as sensory deprivation and corporal punishment, and is the first step on the road to Abu Gharib.

Idiots who think prison is akin to a spell in a holiday camp go on some very odd places for their holidays.

Reading is essential in the educative processes. These have been acknowledged for many years as a key element of rehabilitation. What on earth is the minister thinking?

That’s one kick-ass op-ed.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick came forward to say the policy that keeps prisoners from receiving books from the outside world was a “mistake.” This is just, in Hardwick’s words, unnecessary “micro-management” used for political gain.

Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the POA, told that in his experience, illegal items were infrequently shipped and easily caught. “The reality is [drug smuggling] was never really a problem…. The majority of these books and magazines that came in didn’t have any drugs in them at all. People have been having their books sent in for 20, 30 years and now all of a sudden it’s become a big issue for the secretary of state.”

Letters are still allowed in UK prisons. If anyone wants to put together a prison book list — like a summer reading list — we could all start copying those books longhand and mailing chapters to inmates in protest.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.