Prisoners’ Book Access – A Battle Far From Won

Luke Billingham explains the difficulties experienced by prisoners in the UK prison system accessing books. Luke Billingham is a volunteer with Haven Distribution, a charity that supplies books to the imprisoned.
Prisoners’ Book Access & the “Book Ban”

It is quite easy to interpret the “Book Ban” affair as a basic narrative with a happy ending: before the ban prisoners had access to all the books they needed, during it they had nothing, and now that it’s been lifted they again have access to all the books they need. This portrayal is dangerously simplistic. Both before the ban came into effect and after it was lifted, prisoners have faced significant issues gaining sufficient access to books. As a books-to-prisoners charity, we faced difficulties getting books to prisoners before the ban, and we continue to face difficulties after it.

The triumph over Grayling was without doubt a great achievement. As Alex Cavendish wrote on TPQ recently, there are also signs that the rules on sending books to prisoners have now being loosened further, which is of course very welcome.

It is far from true, however, that prisoners can now access whichever books they need or want. The rules surrounding approved book suppliers have caused problems, and even approved suppliers have sometimes had their books rejected. Another very obvious point, but one that is often neglected, is that most prisoners simply don’t have the means to get books through these suppliers. To do so they either need to buy them themselves or they need somebody on the outside with both the money and the will to order them in. For many of those incarcerated in the UK, this will never be the case. Prison wages are meagre (the letters we receive requesting books often mention that their wages could never cover their cost), and it’s not particularly common for prisoners to have resource-rich friends and relatives on the outside. The textbooks that prisoners most urgently need for their studies can also be prohibitively pricey. Anybody who has ever taken a course will know both how essential a good textbook can be, and how exorbitantly expensive they often are.

A common message: prisoners can't afford to buy the books they need with their prison wages
For most prisoners, the prison library is the main place that they can read books. Some prison libraries are well-stocked, enthusiastically run, and able to acquire books requested by prisoners. As the Howard League has highlighted, however, many prison libraries are chronically under-stocked and understaffed, and lack sufficient supplies of the educational books that are required for prisoners’ courses. Most significantly, prisoners’ access to the library can be very restricted. Though the rules state that they should have at least 30 minutes’ access every fortnight, the reality can be very different: staff shortages can mean that some have to go a lot longer without any access at all. In addition, dictionaries and textbooks are most often reference-only, meaning they can’t be taken back to cells – i.e. “banged up” prisoners can’t read them at all. This is another problem exacerbated by staff shortages: in many prisons there is a worrying trend for more prisoners to be banged up more frequently and for longer because there is a lack of officers to supervise them.

Official rules and laws often amount to little more than formal guidelines – it is the messy reality within actual prisons that most significantly affects prisoners’ access to books. The discretion of individual governors and prison officers often decides whether a book is allowed in or stays out, the condition of the library often dictates whether or not prisoners can get the books they need, and – most importantly – the staffing situation in a prison often determines the access that prisoners can have to the library. Positive changes in rules and laws, such as the lifting of the “Book Ban”, are important and are to be welcomed. But unless accompanied by change in the conditions on the ground – the attitudes of governors and officers, the quality of libraries, the staffing situation – they won’t make enough of a difference to our prisons.

Haven Distribution’s Work

Haven purchases and sends books into prisons to help prisoners with their education, wherever they are incarcerated and whichever courses they are studying. Whatever the official rules and laws, we will continue our effort to send in as many books to as many prisoners as possible, in order to have a concrete impact on their education and resettlement. Particularly if access to the library is rigidly curtailed, and if the library is not well-stocked, it can make an enormous difference to prisoners to have their own copies of books in their cells. Even if they are banged up for much of the day, they can be engaging in productive work using the books that we’ve sent, making progress with their courses and getting closer to attaining the qualifications they need.
The hundreds of educational book requests we receive every month are a testament both to the will for self-improvement in UK prisons, and to the lack of adequate book provision to satisfy that will. Most of the requests we receive are for dictionaries and up-to-date textbooks. Particularly given the literacy issues faced by many UK prisoners, having their own dictionary can play a central role in their education. The new textbooks we send in are particularly crucial for courses such as business, accountancy and law – old textbooks which refer to outdated rules and procedures are no use at all. In some cases, the books we send in for prisoners are the first they have ever owned.

Two weeks' worth of requests: 100+ book requests we received over the past fortnight
The most heartening letters we receive from prisoners are those that refer to the difference made by the books we’ve provided for them, and to the progress they’re making with their courses. Bruce at HMP Parkhurst, for instance, wrote to us to say:

“Many thanks for the book you sent me ... It is vital for my studies & without your help I could never have afforded to get a copy. This is the second book you have sent me over the past few years & I am still using the last one too. I got a distinction in my first O.U. module too.

Prisoners write to us from across the UK prison estate to express similar sentiments. If they have no other means to access essential course books, as is often the case, the books that we send can be vital for them to gain qualifications, and build a new life. I’ve written at greater length elsewhere  about the remarkable impact that books and reading can have for prisoners.
The public outcry in response to Grayling’s “Book Ban” highlighted the popular support in this country for prisoners’ education. The idea that prisoners should have good access to educational resources is an overwhelmingly popular one – the immense pressure put on government to reverse the ban came from all regions of the country and all corners of the political spectrum. Revolutionary anarchists and traditional conservatives can agree that prisoner education is a worthwhile cause which should not be stymied. There are a wide variety of charities, organisation and campaigners that do excellent work to support prison education. At Haven we will continue the practical work of getting books into prisons, for as long as the requests keep coming in from UK prisoners.

If you like the sound of Haven’s work, there are a number of things you could do to help:

·        Donate here to help us purchase more books for more prisoners

·        If you work in a prison or with prisoners, spread the word about our book distribution service – direct prisoners and tutors to our application form, and encourage them to write to us for our general reading catalogue

·        If you work in publishing – particularly educational publishing – we would welcome donations of new, up-to-date educational resources (second-hand books are very difficult to get into prisons, and older resources may not be useful for prisoners’ courses)

·        You can follow us on facebook

·        Share our Radio 4 appeal

·        You can post links to our site on your blog or website

Thank you.
Luke Billingham

Haven Distribution volunteer

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

4 comments to ''Prisoners’ Book Access – A Battle Far From Won"

  1. Luke,

    thanks for raising an important and all too easily forgotten issue. Haven provides a marvellous service. It is just unfortunate that such a service is needed.

  2. I believe the book ban was an act of vindictiveness. The authorities have form for this sort of thing. Taking away a person's liberty is the punishment. How a prisoner can cope without the means to escape through the medium of the printed word is a puzzle.

    Contraband is a major issue and drugs in prison can only harm the prisoner's chances of surviving psychologically unharmed. Drugs can cause psychosis in anyone. It's a question of luck whether inside or outside prison. The confines of a cell can not help your chances.

    Books however can help strengthen the mind. It is a means of escape and a good book can give a natural high. It can stimulate the brain.

    Take away books by saying drugs can be smuggled in will only lead to a need to escape without the printed word. It would only lead to an increase in drug use smuggled in through other routes.

    Thankfully the principle of not having drugs smuggled in books can be met by searching the books rather than taking the position of banning them. Problems are best solved using principles and not positions.

  3. Great to hear of Haven. Similar projects exist in the U.S. The problem is that in California, many of the books my wife and I send prisoners are torn up by guards. They like this "payback" during searches. Good luck with worthy efforts for literacy.

  4. John,

    it is the petty vindictive impulse found so often in the mind of the turnkey.


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