Reading and Rehabilitation

Jenny Diski

The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other 'small items', such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn't take fire as it has now. I don't know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.

Within a day of Crooke's article appearing it had been massively retweeted. Writers like Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman asked if there was a petition, whether one could send books to prison libraries, and by today they and those known as 'literary heavyweights' (Rushdie, McEwan, Duffy, Hornby) along with many others (including me) had signed a petition (currently with more than 18,000 signatures) and letters sent to the Telegraph and the Standard (to come), and discovered how to get books into prison libraries, as well as several organisations that do literary and literacy work with prisoners (48 per cent of the prison population have a reading age under 11 years).

If you are one of the signatories of the petition you won't need telling what is wrong with withholding books from prisoners. Reading and rehabilitation, we feel, go hand in hand. There is an entire world of new thoughts and philosophies available to people whose lives have been blighted by misfortune or careless lack of empathy for the sufferings of others. Books, we are inclined to think, promote empathy. At the very least, they provide a civilised way for incarcerated people to pass the time. In South Africa a few years ago, it was put to me by someone who considered herself a 'liberal' that Nelson Mandela's imprisonment wasn't that bad because he was allowed books. Even at the very arctic end of liberalism, books are seen as valuable.

 Grayling dismisses the outcry as the work of 'leftwingers'. If he means that rightwingers don't care about books or whether people have access to them, it seems he could be wrong. One senior Tory minister told the Daily Mail: 'Chris Grayling wins the prize for the government's least enlightened minister. He has no backing for this from any quarter at all.'

Grayling says we have got it all wrong. The new rules are to be seen in the context of tightening up the 'reward and punishment' regime in prisons designed to rehabilitate offenders:

Prisoners no longer got privileges just by 'keeping your nose clean' but by engaging in 'proper rehabilitative activity'. Penalties for bad behaviour were tougher too, including prisoners losing the right to wear their own clothes and having to wear a uniform instead... And of course it's the kind of thing that leftwing pressure groups hate.

Own clothes here includes the right to wear your own knickers. Grayling insists that prisoners get time in the library and can have up to 12 books in their cells at a time. He doesn't mention how often or under what circumstances prisoners get to the libraries, or how many books they contain. A former prisoner explains:

I've been in establishments where prisoners only get 20 minutes a week to visit the library and change books. Also, with the current cutbacks, few new books are being bought and local county libraries – which often run prison libraries on contract – are increasingly unable to supply books on inter-library loan.

In any case, prisoners are allowed to receive money in the post so they can buy books. So perhaps it's also a way of clawing back a little of the costs of keeping people in prison. Reward and punishment as a method of behaviour control, or operant conditioning, belongs to the time of B.F. Skinner and his nasty boxes in which he trained pigeons to do mindless tricks in order to receive food. My guess is that it's not a very effective long-term strategy: as soon as the outside world stops using reward and punishment – which it does, having little notion of fairness – subjects will revert. The real trick is to change people's minds, not their behaviour. And we're back to books again, as well as the right to dignity that even prisoners have.

Still, I feel, unlike many people, a sense of the hopelessness and the easiness of signing petitions. It appeases our sense of disgust but does nothing to change Grayling's mind. We have a government which, just like Blair's, couldn't care less about expressions of public displeasure. As they repeatedly reject articles that argue with policy as merely the work of the left wing, they show their contempt for the uselessness of words, magazines, books to affect war or law-making. So it's not hard to see that 'books' for them are simply treats to be given to or taken away from prisoners depending on whether or not they stand to attention or eat all their suet pudding. The other plan, to send books to prison libraries, has to be a good idea generally. Prison libraries are part of the general public library system, being squeezed to death by cuts. But it reminds me of when we used to argue about sending books to school libraries because school funding had been cut. It accepts the status quo, and fully participates in the government's plan for charity to take the place of proper provision of essential institutions.


  • 26 March 2014 at 5:43pm
    bluecat says:
    Yes, "a way of clawing back a little of the cost of keeping people in prison" I suspect may be one motive.

    Prisoners can never 'earn' the right to receive underwear from home, homemade cards from their children, or books, no matter how much suet pudding they eat, because the ban on parcels is a blanket one.

    They can by good behaviour 'earn' a visit to the library, where these still exist. They can - indeed they are obliged to - work, and are paid up to £8 per week for their labour.

    From this money, and depending again on them 'earning' the privilege, they may be permitted to buy soap, toothpaste, coffee, phone credit (on a much higher tariff than outside) - and books, from an approved catalogue. If they don't buy these luxuries, they don't get them.

    Now, a new paperback book in the shops runs to £6 - £8. I've not been able to find out whether the catalogue charges the listed publisher's price, or whether, like the mobile phone tariff, a captive consumer is subject to extortionate price inflation. A week's wage for a single book is pretty steep anyway.

    Does anyone know about the catalogue prices? And who is making money out of this in our privatised prison services?

  • 26 March 2014 at 6:02pm
    Jake Bharier says:
    Why do the Truck Acts come to mind?