‘Why I believe books in prison are essential’

On the inside: Should time spent in prison be a chance to gain new skills and improve the mind?
by Memphis Barker

Memphis Barker is a senior editor and writer on Independent Voices.

The news that books can no longer be sent to UK prisoners caused outrage, notably among authors. Aren’t books useful tools in the task of reform? Should they be considered as treats?

Dostoevsky would be narked. ‘The degree of civilisation in a society,’ he once said, ‘can be judged by entering its prisons.’ In the United Kingdom, that degree of civilisation might now also be judged by what is not entering prisons.

Since last November ‘Crime and Punishment’ – along with the rest of Dostoevsky’s writing, and, in fact, all other books – may no longer be sent to inmates residing in any of the country’s correctional facilities. Mercifully, the right to stare at a wall and marinate slowly in guilt, fury and boredom has been left untouched.

The justice secretary Chris Grayling, who is among the busiest parliamentarians in Westminster, perhaps hasn’t had the time to pick up a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. If he had, surely the contradictions of his drive to improve the justice system would by now be obvious.

How can it help matters to prevent prisoners from reading as much as possible, from as many sources as they can?

On the one hand Grayling wants to cut re-offending through reforms to the probation system. On the other he seems willing to demean prisoners by making it harder to access books and also, as part of last year’s toughening of punishments, watch 18-rated movies or go to the gym for a work-out.

The line of thought seems to be: the state will treat prisoners like wayward children when they are behind bars, then hope that, on their release, the private contractors hired under the new probation system will iron out any problems this causes and turn the formerly-incarcerated into conscientious, kind members of the outside world.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice has said that the purpose of the ban is to shore up an existing incentives scheme intended to reward good behaviour, and points out the availability of books in prison libraries. Some of the outrage at it may stem from the tastes of the bleeding-heart liberal, who imagines that a spell in jail would be perfect for catching up on somebody or other’s collected works.

I’ll admit to that: watch a documentary like ‘Shakespeare Behind Bars’ (2005), which charts the preparation for a performance of ‘The Tempest’ in a Kentucky jail, and part of you starts to believe that every prison could be stocked full of unfulfilled Shakespeare lovers, willing to be set on the path to redemption through Elizabethan blank verse.

But then again, why not? Two recent studies claimed respectively that harsher prison conditions do not reduce re-offending, and that youth crime is driven by ‘a lack of moral and cognitive development’ – the kind of thing the arts should help with – not opportunism.

Of course, the problems with the UK’s prison system go far deeper than the availability of reading material: overcrowding for one, as well as a lack of activities and mental health support. But with those problems as expensive to address as they are, how can it possibly help matters to prevent prisoners from reading as much as possible, from as many sources as they can?

Grayling’s ban is short-sighted and counterproductive. Reading opens up the minds and motivations of other people. Someone should write a book about what it feels like to have too little to do, for years, in a cell – and post it to the justice secretary. He might learn something useful.

You Decide

  1. Prison is a form of punishment, but does that mean that prisoners shouldn’t expect to have access to books or films?


  1. Make a list of all the different activities prisoners could have access to while they are in prison. How many of them might provide them with useful skills for when they return to the outside world?

Word Watch

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was personally familiar with prisons. Aged 28 he was condemned to death for his liberal political opinions. At the last minute, as the firing squad prepared, a note arrived from Tsar Nicholas I commuting the sentence to four years’ hard labour in a Siberian prison camp.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
A celebrated short novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) which has been filmed over a hundred times. Dr Jekyll experiments on himself with a drug which separates the good and evil parts of personality and transforms him into Mr Hyde, a psychopathic monster.
Bleeding-heart liberal
Used to describe (usually disapprovingly) a person of left-wing or liberal views thought to be excessively soft-hearted towards the sufferings of the poor, disadvantaged and oppressed.
Elizabethan blank verse
Most English poetry is written in blank verse, which doesn’t have rhymes, but is metrical, with regular stresses. It became very popular among poets and playwrights in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in blank verse.

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