Thursday, 15 January 2015

Guest blog: Frances Crook on the Books For Prisoners campaign

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NEC has a long, rich history of providing access to education in a variety of different—and sometimes difficult—circumstances. For many years we have worked with the Prisoners’ Education Trust to support learners serving custodial sentences. Our work has shown us first-hand how much of a positive impact education can have in prisons, and we fully support the Howard League for Penal Reform’s campaign for better access to books for prisoners. We are therefore delighted to share a blog from Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League, about the ban on sending books to prisoners.

Reading a book can be a lifeline for a prisoner. We all know that books can take you to different worlds and different people, but if you are sitting alone in a cell the size of a cupboard and you haven’t been outside for weeks or out of the cell for more than an hour or two, that imaginative leap can save your life and your sanity. It doesn’t even have to be great literature or even a novel, it can be a book about bird watching or engineering, anything that is of interest to you as a person, not as a prisoner.

So it was with astonishment that the Howard League learnt of the ban on sending books into prisoners as part of the ban on parcels introduced in the new incentives scheme in November 2013. At first ministers claimed the ban was part of the incentives scheme. But that claim was shot down when it was pointed out that no matter how well prisoners behaved they could not receive parcels under the new rules. Then ministers claimed it was not a privilege after all, but a part of a plan to increase security because so many drugs were being smuggled in. But they were unable to provide any proof that any drugs had ever been smuggled in via books. Then they claimed, in desperation, that there had always been a ban on parcels, but that is simply untrue.

In March 2014 I wrote an article about the ban on sending books and other essentials (like underwear and gifts from children) which appeared on the website and it went viral. By the end of that week we had a demonstration organised outside Pentonville prison with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, Sir David Hare, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam West, Tracey Chevalier and Kathy Lette,

The country’s top writers supported the campaign and we held vigils, bombarded the Ministry of Justice with tweets picturing people’s bookshelves, wrote letters to the press, got Parliamentary questions and debates, delivered a letter to Downing Street, met political leaders, and at Christmas we (and Santa Claus) delivered boxes of books to the Secretary of State.

The media coverage was international. Howard League people did interviews with media in Russia, Australia and the US. The most interesting and important part of the year of campaigning was the public reaction. It was one of outrage that government had restricted prisoners’ access to books. For once, prisoners were being seen as human beings with legitimate rights. People had sympathy and empathy for prisoners. This was an extraordinary outcome and one we hope will be carried through to other discourses about prisoners’ rights and their treatment.

Receiving books through the post has become increasingly important as massive staff cuts have curtailed prisoners’ access to a library. Inspection reports reveal that whilst most prison libraries are reasonably well stocked, the lack of staff means that people in some prisons can hardly ever get there. This will continue to be a challenge for prisons and the Howard League has recently submitted a memorandum to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee revealing the extent of the problem.

The best news is that the legal challenge was successful and the court ruled that the ban on sending in books was unlawful. Sadly the ruling only referred to books and so prisoners will still not be able to receive underwear and other packages to help them through their time. This is particularly problematic for women who are not given a prison uniform and for remand prisoners who often cannot do chores to earn a little pocket money. Both will have to wear the same clothes, including underwear, that they went in with.

The government has delayed implementing the court decision on books until February and the Howard League will continue to exert pressure to reverse the ban on parcels for prisoners.

Frances Crook
Chief Executive
The Howard League for Penal Reform

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