Banning books – a prison library story

For anyone with any involvement is book publishing, and anyone with a sense of the redemptive power of books, the government’s recently introduced changes to the IEP (Incentives and Earned Privileges) scheme for prisoners cause alarm bells to ring.

Anyone who tampers with the availability of books risks evoking thoughts of Savonarola in Florence in 1505, or Fahrenheit 451. But you don’t need to burn books. You just place them off-limits.

The changes claim to be ‘about making (prisoners) work towards their rehabilitation. Poor behaviour and refusal to engage in the prison regime will result in a loss of privileges.’ One key change:

‘A ban on all sentenced prisoners receiving parcels including books and other basic items, except for a one-off parcel at the start of their sentence and in exceptional circumstances.’ Television access is severely restricted. (The issue is not of course restriction itself – it’s how tight that restriction is. There are good reasons for restricting TV access.)

To progress IEP status, prisoners must ‘demonstrate a commitment towards their rehabilitation’ by engaging in purposeful activity, behaving well and helping other prisoners’. It seems that ‘knitting wool, embroidery silks as well as books are banned and indeed the parcel is returned to the sender who has to pay’. (Again, wool implies needles, and you can see why needles are restricted – if not outright banned.)

The effect would seem to be to make purposeful activity harder. The changes appear to run directly counter to both rehabilitation, by helping prisoners stay connected to the outside world, and better re-connect when they get out, and to their personal welfare. You build confidence and self-esteem, you don’t undermine it by denying opportunities for self-improvement.

Reading the Prison Reform Trust’s document ‘Prison Without Purpose’ is disturbing. Compounding matters is the failure of many prisons to comply with the statutory duty of prisons to have a library, with all prisoners allowed access for a minimum of thirty minutes every two weeks. Book stock, points out the Society of Authors, ‘in many prisons is poor, often damaged or out-of-date and that inter-library loan requests are often slow or not actioned at all.’

Note: existing regulations allow access for a minimum of thirty minutes every two weeks. That is bad in itself.

Humanity and compassion are at the heart of what I write about in this blog. On the evidence I’m aware of (from the PRT’s report, the book publishing trade press and the wider press) the current changes runs counter to both.

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