Reading rehabilitates prisoners: it is not a privilege to be earned

You need other books? Peter Macdiarmid/PA

Chris Grayling’s latest reform to the justice system has gone viral as news emerged he had banned prisoners from receiving books sent from outside. A blog piece penned by Frances Cook, of the Howard League, outlined some of the items that prisoners were now to be prohibited from receiving, including underwear (meaning shared pants, worn for months on end) and home-made gifts (making a personalised birthday card from a child into illicit contraband).

The item that most captured popular attention was the banning of the books. This has produced a very strong reaction from writers and novelists. Mark Haddon, award winning author of The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has described it as malign and pointless extra punishment. And other authors such as Philip Pullman, as well as academics including Mary Beard have given their support to a growing campaign urging the Ministry of Justice to review the decision. There is now also an official petition.

It is important to stress that Grayling has not banned books. The measure means that the right to books will become part of the “incentives and earned privileges scheme”. Extra books are allowed if bought with money earned from good behaviour – but this only occurs when the prisons deem inmates worthy and, even then, they can only be purchased from a specific (government-approved) catalogue.

Otherwise, prisoners will remain reliant on the prison libraries. But as prison libraries are largely dependent on local libraries that have been subject to a round of cuts and closures, they are under significant pressure.

Positive impact

The measure seems to have been introduced without much consideration of the positive impact that reading and the arts generally can have on offenders. Before coming up with such a short-sighted policy, Cambridge history graduate Grayling should have done some basic research.

The Koestler Trust, for example, would provide him with any number of examples of offenders who had discovered and developed new skills whilst in prison that had had a transformative effect on their lives. And the recent report Prison Reading Groups: What Books Can Do Behind Bars has comprehensively demonstrated the wide-ranging benefits of Prison Reading Groups over a period of more than a decade.

It is hard to see why anyone would want to restrict wider reading in prisons. The benefits are clear in terms of the personal development of offenders, and by extension, society.

The need to prepare prisoners for life as normal citizens is increasingly being recognised by other legal jurisdictions. Norway is the most enlightened of all as demonstrated by Bastoy Prison Island. Though hosting some of the country’s most serious offenders (including murder and rape), it offers humane conditions. They live in wooden bungalows, six men to a cottage, each with their own room. They can prepare their own meals and work to earn money for food. They receive weekly visits with conjugal relations allowed. They get used to living as they will live when they are released. As a result, Bastoy has a remarkably low reoffending rate of just 16% – compared to around 70% for other European prisons.

On books in particular, Brazil have recently enshrined the importance of reading, offering four days sentence discount for every book read. The book scheme has been designed to tackle the escalating violence that blights the country’s prisons, based on the idea that access to books can leave prisoners “more enlightened and with an enlarged vision of the world”. Inmates read literature, philosophy, science or classics and can gain reductions of up to 48 days off their term per year. They are expected to read the books and then write reflective essays to show that they have truly engaged with their themes.

Grayling and human rights

So, if other nations recognise the need to treat prisoners as human beings, why is Grayling doing this? Writing in the Guardian, John Podmore recently summed up the Justice Secretary as the archetypal school bully, who “walks around the playground deliberately bumping into people in the hope of picking a fight”. His favourite target is Strasbourg, the home of the European Court of Human Rights, with which he is ever looking for a scrap. Grayling has a genuine disdain for the current system of human rights, what he describes as “soft justice”; an approach to offenders “twisted by political correctness”.

So this book ban should be understood as resolutely ideological: it is a part of Grayling’s plan to clamp down on those he dismisses as yobs. The latest restrictions must be read alongside the rest of the Justice Secretary’s charge sheet: legal aid cuts, restrictions on judicial review, the privatisation of probation, cutting back on no-win no-fee.

Grayling is a traditional Tory law-and-order politician, very much in the mould of Michael “prison works” Howard. He appears to be committed to not only increasing the use of imprisonment but also playing to the tabloid gallery and ensuring that prison life is as bleak as possible.

Reading as privilege

But there is already so little purposeful and constructive activity in most of our prisons. In a number of critical reports, HM Inspector of Prisons has highlighted the paucity of work and training that takes place. For example, a report of recent unannounced inspection at HMP/YOI Belmarsh painted a bleak picture, noting that:

Too many prisoners were locked in their cells with nothing to do, and did not spend enough time out of cell. There were too few activity places and these were underused, compounded by regime slippage, and had poor punctuality and attendance. Strategic management of learning, skills and work was poor. The quality of provision and achievement outcomes were inadequate. Library and gym provision were adequate but access to both was limited.

This is the context in which this ban has to be judged. It is bizarre that access to reading materials should ever been seen as a privilege, let alone in a system where prisoners are spending so much time in their cells. As convicted murderer-turned-journalist Erwin James argues, reading in prison is not a trivial issue, and cannot be subject to gesture politics.

Reading provides some form of hope and a link with the outside world, as well as being an antidote to the often mind numbing boredom and routine. Let’s hope that Mark Haddon and his colleagues are successful in overturning this petty, short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating policy.