Word for Word: Depriving prisoners of books

A librarian pushes a book cart in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photograph: Getty Image

A librarian pushes a book cart in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photograph: Getty Image


Last week a group of prominent British writers and actors, including Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy, Salmon Rushdie and Vanessa Redgrave, gathered to protest outside Pentonville jail, in London. Many had signed a letter to the British justice secretary, Chris Grayling, begging him to alter a rule, introduced last November, that forbids prisoners from receiving books.

The ban was part of a wider prohibition on families sending parcels, in case they contained drugs or other contraband. But it’s also part of Grayling’s “rehabilitation agenda”: he says prisoners have to earn privileges such as books through good behaviour and clear commitment to their rehabilitation.

Being in jail means losing your freedom. For readers, to be deprived of books, even without loss of freedom, would be torture. To be without books in a situation of isolation doesn’t bear thinking about. We deem books to be an essential component of our desert-island kitbag. We cannot reach the departure gates of an airport without being plied with books to soften the impact of the isolation of a few hours in a tube in the sky.

Imagine, then, weeks, months, even years without access to books other than what the prison library might contain. Grayling argues that the latter will provide ample reading material. His opponents say increasing cutbacks mean that prison libraries’ range of books is being reduced all the time.

People are in prison because they have committed crimes. In an ideal system the punishment of isolation is accompanied by an attempt at rehabilitation. Is reading fiction not supposed to expand our minds, teach us empathy, allow us to enter imaginatively the lives of others? And nonfiction may enable the acquisition of skills.

Many prisoners cannot read or write, but some of the lucky ones emerge from jail having acquired some level of literacy, equipping them to deal better with the enormous challenge of making a fresh start on release.

Here in the Republic the regulations allow books and magazines to be brought into prisons or received in parcels with the reasonable provision that they first be routed through the security systems. I’m told prisoners are encouraged to donate their books to the prison libraries after they’ver read them.

In the United States, the Prison Books program, a vountary initiative based in Cambridge, Massacheusetts, which supplies free books to prisoners all over the US has on its logo the words ‘Books Open Doors’. Despite its success, it lists several US states as well as 62 specific prisons, whose regulations do not allow it to send books to prisoners.

It is hard to understand those who believe restricting access to books would have anything other than a negative effect. Some suspect that Chris Grayling hadn’t really thought it through, not that that has stopped his prime minister from supporting his decision. It is good to see the wave of outrage this new rule has provoked.

I am glad that our own prison authorities have never proposed such a bizarre regulation as the new British one. Here’s hoping they never will.

Doireann Ní Bhríain is a broadcaster and producer

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