Prisoners and their books
OK, there has been a lot of steam about the issue of prisoners not being allowed to be sent books (or most other gifts) from the outside. And no, it is not the case -- and most of us never claimed it was -- that books are to be banned in prisons. The precise details of the new regime (since last November) are clearly explained by the Howard League here.
But as the interview with the prisons minister, Jeremy Wright, on the Today programme this morning made clear, there is still loads to be anxious about. The first thing was that he was unwilling actually to discuss the issue with author Mark Haddon, but apparently insisted on being interviewed separately. Never a good sign when a minister wont discuss.
His first point was that prisoners had access to prison libraries. Well fine: but how well are prison libraries funded? what kind of ordering system is in place, with what kind of cash limits (will they really order a £50 book on twentieth-century painting)? and how often does the average prisoner get access to them? From what I have heard on the grapevine -- and there's no surprises here --prison libraries aren't immune from the kind of cuts that are afflicting public libraries. But it would nice to have some details of funding and opening hours if anyone has them. (And, as a friend asked today, what about books in foreign languages? Not all prisoners have English as their first language.)
Wright also said that prisoners could buy books if they wanted. But Mark Haddon and others have pointed out that these books have to be chosen from one catalogue (he wouldn't say which catalogue -- does anyone know that?). And with what money? The average work-earnings for a prisoner inside is about £8 a week, and that's for everything. Even if he or she spent all of it on books, £8 a week isnt going to go very far. Knight then said that they could have money sent to them from outside in order to buy. But how much? Is there no limit on the cash you can send a prisoner? (Again, I'd like some info here.)
All this seems to be driven by saving money on the appropriate security checks for incoming parcels. But it simply misunderstands how the pleasures and benefits and restorative potential of books can actually work. It's not always -- or even usually -- through picking something (cheap) from a catalogue.. it's often through someone saying, "I think you'd like this... I really enjoyed it.. why not borrow it". It's about being encouraged to try something new, to explore further interests you are only just discovering.
Amongst everything else, it's that kind of opening which is getting cut off here too.
And as Mark Haddon said, even the prisoners in Guantanamo can be sent books.