by Joey Wilson-Brooke
Off the back of the announcement by Chris Grayling in March on the restrictions placed on sending packages to prisoners, YorkPEN decided that this was an issue we wanted to make an event about. It might not seem to have an apparent connection with the ‘Freedom to read, freedom to write’ ethos that we stand by but when you take a step back, you can see that these restrictions have a knock-on effect on a prisoners access to literature.
The restriction prevents family and friends sending packages, with the aim to help reduce searching time by prison guards for illicit items. It seems reasonable on the surface, but consider that this would stop family members being able to send cheaper versions of books not already available in the library, leaving only the more expensive option of sending new books by approved online retailers, like Amazon. This is not a luxury that some families and prisoners can afford.
It was this opportunity to take a step back which we hoped our event, Read for Redemption, would offer. We curated an exhibition to outline the current situation in Britain, to show the necessity for books in prisons, examples of other countries that have taken different approaches to books and rehabilitation, and had an interactive social media platform where people could Tweet the books they would send to prisoners and to help trend the hash tag #booksforprisoners and increasing the awareness of the campaign. But what was arguably the most important part of the evening, were the book donations brought by the guests who attended the event.
We wanted to achieve a practical outcome of our evening, as well as raise awareness of the issues surrounding Grayling’s new restrictions, so we enquired into donating books to prisons. It was not an easy task. After weeks of no luck, we struck upon gold – the charity, Give A Book. By some coincidence, they were in the process of searching for a storage facility to store such book donations as we were hoping to collect, in order to send to prison libraries and reading rooms. Finally, we had someone to facilitate the distribution of our book donations.
The necessity for these book donations is quite simple – the inadequacy of prison libraries. As much as Grayling likes to state, his prison libraries are lacking. Not all of them (there are a lot of prisons in the UK) but some of them haven’t the books or the access to incite prisoners to read. There have been comments from within prisons of the catch-22 in the library system: the book you want isn’t there; you cannot get the book sent to you by your family; you put in a request for the book; three months later, a reply with title ‘unavailable’ appears. The brick wall is hit and there is no way around it. Imagine the frustration, especially when that title was a textbook that you needed to complete a GSCE or A Level course – so much for trying to better yourself.
But there have been silver linings, one being the formation of the Wormwood Scrubs Reading Room, stocked by donations from Give A Book. The reading rooms have been a great success, with open book rooms on each wing now. To really explain how welcome these rooms are, I’ve picked a quote from Give A Book’s blog: “[the prison guard) explained the situation and the generosity of donors and the other said ‘So we can just take these back to our cell and read them?’ I replied ‘yes’ – cue more amazement.” These reading rooms allow the prisoners’ easier access to the books, which has been an issue in a lot of prisons, due to cuts in staffing levels leaving little time to accompany inmates to the library. Improving literary levels is not only beneficial for the future endeavors of the inmates but also, in the same way that it is used in schools, for social awareness and situational understanding, helping to put themselves into other people’s shoes.
What can I do, I hear you cry. Well, I read an exciting tweet from the Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook (what an ironic name), saying “Spent the morning planning more activities to draw attention to awful ban on #booksforprisoners with @TheHowardLeague & @englishpen”. But whilst we wait, there are still things to be done, like donating to a prison library by contacting and sending books to Give A Book or, as The Howard League suggests, to Chris Grayling. You can Tweet and “Name the Book” that you would send to prisoners and keep the #booksforprisoners campaign right in the MoJ’s face. Staying on the social media line, why not take a #shefie of your bookcase to show your support for the campaign, and show off your lovely book collection. If you fancy keeping it more traditional, you can’t beat a letter to your MP, expressing your concern at the state of libraries in prisons. If petitions are right up your street, then this hyperlink is for you. But however you choose to act after your finish this article, please don’t be apathetic. If we never give criminals a chance to change, they won’t, and that will be at a greater cost to society.
If my whirlwind tour of this issue has sparked an interest and you fancy looking at this campaign in more depth, The Howard League for Penal Reform, English PEN and Give A Book offer more information and options for you.
Joey Wilson-Brooke is Co-Chair of York PEN for the academic year 14/15, and an English and Related Literature at the University of York.