World Book Day post | Books in Prison: Bricks Taken from its Walls
By Luke Billingham of Haven Distribution
On World Book Day, a day to celebrate and promote reading, we recognise that a book can be an incredibly important thing for anybody. Many people can identify books which have had a profound impact on them, perhaps even changed the way they live their life.
For prisoners, books can quite literally be a life-line—they can be an essential resource for their studies, which could be the key to their successful resettlement, or they can be the vital source of escapism that keeps them going day-to-day. Books help prisoners gain the qualifications needed for meaningful and fulfilling employment on release, and they provide the rich stimulation needed to tackle the chronic and crushing boredom that can eat away their self-worth.
Erwin James, who has written for the Guardian about his time “inside”, and who kindly recorded our Radio 4 appeal, put this particularly well: “[Books] gave me hope, for sure—but more than anything they were the practical means to achieving a life worth living.”
There is an enormous appetite for self-education and change in UK prisons, but all too few resources for this will to be fully realised. Prison libraries do great work under difficult circumstances, but they rarely have sufficient dictionaries or educational books, don’t allow these to leave the library, and can take months to locate particular books for prisoners’ courses, if they are able to at all. Access to libraries is often very restricted, with prisoners only able to use them for short, rigidly circumscribed time periods. Most of our work is sending prisoners specific essential books to help them with their courses, and having their own copies can make a huge difference. Mr Smith wrote to us from HMP Wymott after receiving a textbook: “This will enable me to finish the course much faster because having my own book will allow me to study in my cell.” Being able to use their course book whenever they wish, in their own cell, can transform self-education from an irregular and sporadic activity into an ongoing project which provides continuous, guiding purpose. Another beneficiary, Mr Ganinazari—to whom we sent Plato’s Republic—quoted Shelley to convey this point to us: “Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose, a point on which one could fix the intellectual-eye.” Through all the difficulties and rages of prison life, the steady purpose provided by the study of books can calm and direct the mind.
Before, during and after Chris Grayling’s infamous “Book Ban”, we’ve faced serious difficulties getting books into prisons. Some prisons remain stubbornly resistant to our work. Three UK prisons still outright refuse to accept any books for prisoners, despite all the evidence showing how much reading and education can aid rehabilitation.
Books in prisons are particularly important given the literacy difficulties among prisoners—around half of UK prisoners have literacy skills at or below level 1. Perhaps less well-known is the large number of prisoners who have English as a second or third language. Our most commonly-requested type of book is dictionaries, to support prisoners who struggle with English language. Many of them are bilingual picture dictionaries to help those who speak very little English at all. Language difficulties not only make study much more difficult, but they make it harder for prisoners to have any sort of meaningful communication with others in prison. A.D., in HMP Warren Hill, wrote to us to say: “Thank you for sending me the English-Tamil dictionary. I am really grateful as it will help me in my English classes. It will also help me understand what people [are] saying as English is my third language.” One book can radically improve life chances.
Haven has sent books to over 150 UK prisons, to prisoners studying over 65 different courses. We send an average of around 6 books each working day. All of this is organised by two people: our founder & chair, Lee, and our secretary, Kim, both of whom do the work alongside full-time jobs, and neither of whom take any payment for it. All the money we receive is spent on providing books for prisoners—an important principle for us.
The Prison Reform Trust recently ran a writing competition for those in Britain’s prisons. One of the winning entries, by a prisoner called Paul, was about the significance that the prison library and books held for him. He finished his piece by saying that books provide prisoners “with the most coveted and precious commodity of all, in or out of prison ... time well spent.” Whether they are facing weeks or decades of incarceration, books can help to ensure that prisoners spend their time well.
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