Books, Law

Prison Books No 2

I recently wrote a post on this blog complaining that a prisoner in the United States was sentenced to cruel and unusual punishment when she was forced to read a book by Malcom Gladwell (Prison Books, 1st February 2014). In taking things to the other extreme the Lord Chancellor, Mr Chris Grayling MP, has made it against prison rules to send any book to a prisoner in England or Wales. From 1st November 2013 it is forbidden for any convicted prisoner to receive a parcel (either in the post or by hand) whatever it contains, including books, unless exceptional circumstances apply. The rule can be found at Prison Service Instruction No 30/2013 paragraph 10.4.

The rule change was introduced under a policy called “Reducing reoffending and improving rehabilitation”. Who can sensibly argue that reading books can’t improve the rehabilitation prospect of prisoners? The real reason, one suspects, is more to do with looking tough for the electorate. Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography, wrote that whilst imprisoned for conscientious objection during the First World War he was laughing whilst reading Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians when a warder came round to stop him saying that he must remember that prison was a place of punishment. He also published a review of a book about Kant, whilst inside, and several German inmates came to him to argue with Russell’s interpretation. That sort of thing would be stopped now.

Oscar Wilde applied to the Home Office for his friend More Adey to be allowed to bring books in for him to read. On 10th December 1896 the Home Office approved the following titles to be sent to Reading Gaol for Wilde:
Stanley’s Jewish Church
Percy’s Reliques
Letters of R. Louis Stevenson
The Poems of Tennyson, Keats, Chaucer, Matthew Arnold, Dryden, Pope and Spenser
Christopher Marlowe’s Works
Walter Pater’s posthumous volume of essays
Buckle’s History of Civilisation
Renan’s Vie de Jesus
Cardinal Newman’s Critical and Historical Essays
Ranke’s History of the Popes
Lecky’s History of Rationalism
Wordsworth’s Complete Works
Morte d’Arthur
Froissart’s Chronicles
Goethe’s Faust

It is fortunate indeed that Wilde had the benefit of the enlightened Victorian prison rules. I defy any member of the present Government to identify a title from this list that would encourage re-offending or reduce the chance of rehabilitation. It is possible that the rule change has been made to prevent prisoners from being better read than members of the cabinet, who, alas, don’t have the time for such study anymore.

On the other hand books were banned for many years on Robben Island, and Nelson Mandela didn’t offend on his release in 1990, did he? I suppose that the apartheid rule banning books on the Island could be used as an argument in support of the present Government’s position. There is now in the little museum there a copy of a contraband edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Plays that had been smuggled in by a political prisoner. Nelson Mandela scribbled marginalia within it and highlighted the following passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Prison libraries are still available but with the stock of books the responsibility of Local Authorities who are cutting library services to save money, it is no longer an ornament of Her Majesty’s prison service. Can I suggest that the following enlightened philosophy of prison reading is studied by members of Parliament? In Brazil prisoners get four days reduced from their prison sentences for every book they read. The rule banning books being sent to prisoners in England and Wales should be lifted forthwith.

Edward Bindloss


3 thoughts on “Prison Books No 2

  1. tristramw says:
  2. Calum says:

    I wonder what would happen if hundreds of people started sending in books to Wormwood Scrubs? Like, hundreds, upon hundreds of books. No sooner have the last lot been disposed of than another lorryload arrives.

  3. After 20 years as Jersey’s leading opposition politician, I’ve spent the last few years as an “enemy of the state” for exposing various long-concealed crimes on the island and the systemic failings of the local polity. This has led to me being imprisoned for whistleblowing and contempt of court.

    During my most recent stretch as Jersey’s first political prisoner since the Nazis were thrown out at the end of WWII, a supporter in the USA sent me a book – a beautiful, illustrated hardback anthology of Pablo Neruda’s poems of the sea, On the Blue Shore of Silence, translations by Alastair Reid, paintings by Mary Heebner.

    The book was deemed “contraband” by the prison regime who refused to give it to me until my release.

    Quite what purpose this action was supposed to serve, I never could tell.

    Perhaps as @mccartney_jenny observed to me via Twitter, “Well, anything could happen if prisoners read Neruda. There might be a mass outbreak of bittersweet melancholy.”


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