Prisoners’ books: a ban on reading?

26 March 2014

Tara Stubbs, Kellogg Fellow and University Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, writes a comment piece on the recent press coverage about government measures to restrict the access to books for prisoners. Leave a comment and join the debate.

In recent days academics, writers and prominent prison literacy campaigners have reacted with horror to new government measures restricting prisoners’ access to books, underwear and other items we might deem as necessities. An online petition has been launched against the measures and well-known authors, including Mark Haddon and, Patron for the Kellogg College Centre for Creative Writing, Philip Pullman, have voiced their concerns.

Such topics are always fraught with tension. To what extent, we might ask, is the government really restricting prisoners’ access to books? Is it the case that, as Conservative ministers have tried to explain, it is merely that books can’t be sent in to prisoners – partly because banned substances can be smuggled in such packages? And isn’t it true that prisons have their own libraries?

But the evidence, unfortunately, points to the fact that the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, and his colleagues might have gone too far this time. The ban on receiving parcels is not merely imposed on violent prisoners, but on all prisoners, including women and children held in detention centres: Grayling has defended the measures (put into place last November) to ensure that prisoners of any type can receive only letters from outside as an example of treating fairly all those who are interned. Now prisoners can ‘earn’ books, and money for books, through the prisoners’ incentive and earned privileges scheme. But it seems inevitable that literacy rates, and the possibility for prisoners to rehabilitate, will decline as a result of these measures. Books should be a necessity, not a luxury.

The situation is best summed up by Richard Armstrong, a prison literacy researcher from Newcastle Universty (as reported in an article in The Guardian on 25th March): ‘There is no evidence [that] the incentives and earned privileges regime will improve behaviour. But there is lots of evidence that removing the means to increase literacy reduces rehabilitation’. That, surely, is an outcome that no British citizen would support.

Tara Stubbs, 25 March 2014