A lot of people probably think that prisoners shouldn’t be getting to read books or take part in a poetry workshop — they’d rather think of them sewing mail bags or breaking rocks. But we ought really to think of incarceration as rehabilitation rather than punishment, oughtn’t we? Here’s a link to a video showing a prison poetry workshop in progress: quite impressive. We’ve got a long tradition of prisoners “improving themselves” by study while in jail, especially perhaps by studying the law. It seems so sensible to aim at rehabilitation that the British government’s decision earlier this year to restrict prisoners’ access to books came as a bit of a surprise. Of course their rule applies only to their receiving books from outside (does the government think that files and knives will be being concealed in the books?) and prison libraries will continue unaffected. The Shelf Awareness report on reactions follows.

Petition Launched to Protest U.K.’s Prisoner Book Ban

Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman are among the authors supporting a Change.org petition launched in the U.K. Monday that calls upon justice minister Chris Grayling to “urgently review and amend your new rules which restrict prisoners access to books and family items,” the Guardian reported, adding that numerous writers “have poured scorn on ‘despicable’ new rules from the Ministry of Justice.” The petition already has more than 20,000 signatures.

Haddon called the rules a “malign and pointless extra punishment, which is not only malign and small-minded but desperately counterproductive.” Pullman described the situation as “one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government…. Words nearly fail me on this…. Any government worth having would countermand this loathsome and revolting decision at once, sack the man responsible, and withdraw the whip from him.”

Booksellers were also making themselves heard regarding the issue. On Facebook, Word on the Water posted: “I worked with ex-prisoners for 20 years, and know that the secret of salvation for many of them was found between the pages of a book — in one case a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists* that a prisoner found hidden in a toilet cistern that taught him, as he put it, that ‘even people like me deserve to be happy.’ He went on to direct a charity that, with remarkable success, helped men turn away from committing domestic violence. Please, if you agree that depriving those in prison of the ability to read is plain wrong, consider signing the petition.”

Chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick told the Independent the government’s blanket ban on books being sent to prisoners is a mistake and the policy should be changed. “The problem in this case… is trying to micro-manage this from the center, with the center describing very detailed lists of what prisoners can and can’t have,” he said. “I think that’s a mistake. I think that once the policy intention is clear, how that’s implemented should be left much more to the discretion and the common sense of governors, so that they can reflect the needs of their particular prison population.”

Here’s report from The Bookseller of 27 June about a protest rally at Downing Street.

Ministers still refuse to budge, as Galley Cat 21 August reports. More recently Mr Grayling, who appears to be remaining adamant, is reported in The Telegraph as agreeing that prisoners actually get much better library service than the general population in Britain. Of course maybe that should prompt a review of the public library service. But the government has bigger problems on its hands those days what with Syria and Scotland. It sounds like prisoners will just have to keep on reading their 16 books each in the library, and forgo the pleasure of unwrapping the latest bestseller. Amazon even provides a list of “books for inmates” if you feel inclined to send a gift (but not of course if you are in the UK). I suspect that most prisoners would consider other inconveniences of incarceration slightly more significant than the lack of book post.

Later: Swintec has created a typewriter for inmates: clear, so that nothing can be concealed in it!

Yet later: The High Court has declared the ban on books for prisoners to be unlawful. Here’s The Bookseller report of 5 December 2014

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* The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell is available for your Kindle free of charge (well at least it is today). It’s a socialist classic from 1914 and at that price you can’t afford not to read it.