Monday, 21 July 2014

Prison Libraries: News from Inside

One of the main claims made by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling during the debate over prisoners’ access to books is that “all prisoners can access well-stocked prison libraries,” (Chris Grayling, writing on the Conservative Home website, 25 March 2014). There are two pretty big whoppers there in that one short sentence.

Full shelves... but how much access?
Subsequently, in his open letter to Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Mr Grayling made the following specific assertions:  “… prisoners have full access to the same public library service in prisons as every other citizen, as well as the ability to order books from Amazon via the prison shop using their prison earnings or money sent in by relatives. There is a professionally run library service in every prison, and every prisoner has the right to order any available title and can have up to twelve books at any one time.”

I’ve remarked in previous posts on this blog that the key issue is access. Now, I suppose you could claim that ‘access’ could mean a once a year occurrence and that would still constitute ‘access’ – of a sort. However, I think that a sharp dose of reality is required in this case. This morning I received a letter from a friend who is currently incarcerated at HMP Lincoln (a B-cat local prison) and he has updated me on the latest situation there. It makes grim reading for anyone who believes in the value of education as part of the rehabilitation process. I don't usually 'name and shame' individual prisons on this blog, but I'll make an exception for Lincoln, given that it has also received some shockingly bad reports from HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

HMP Lincoln
Until recently, library access at HMP Lincoln was supposedly weekly (although it was regularly cancelled without notice). The latest development is that the new regime only provides for two library sessions per month and this also clashes with two main gym sessions for prisoners who have jobs. So despite Mr Grayling’s grossly inflated claims above, access to library books at a major B-cat prison has just been halved at the stroke of a pen. No doubt the reason is ‘operational’ – that is a staff shortage, created by incompetent management of HMPS, which is now forcing the Ministry of Justice to try to re-hire up to 2,000 prison officers who only recently took redundancy.

Now, let’s turn to another of Mr G’s whoppers: the “right to order any available title” from the library service. Time for another dose of harsh reality, I’m afraid. According to my correspondent – who is studying hard by distance learning to gain a vocational qualification that will give him a real chance of gainful employment when he is released – he needs access to five specific course books.

Prior to the new rules introduced by PSI 30/2013 in November 2013, he would have asked his family to try to find at least some of these textbooks cheaply (second-hand or online). Now that route is closed, so he put in a request to the prison library – which doesn’t have any of the required titles in stock – to order the volumes via the inter-library loan system.

Last week, he received the response following a six-week wait, during which his studies have been held up: only one of the required textbooks is available. He is now despairing of ever being able to complete a course that he is funding himself… not the taxpayer. So much for the idea of rehabilitation through education and self-improvement. No wonder so many cons conclude that trying to reform just isn't worth the effort.

"A good book has no ending"
I’ll allow his letter to speak for him here: “I wanted to re-educate myself as part of my rehabilitation, to become a ‘model reformed character’...” I sincerely hope that this young man’s determination to gain a worthwhile vocational qualification that might give him a fighting chance of finding a job when he is released isn’t completely undermined by these spiteful, counter-productive IEP regulations.

I’m thinking of getting a list of the books he needs so urgently and finding a way to get them donated directly to HMP Lincoln’s library, so at least he might be able to continue his studies. As the old saying goes, “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

This is the truth – and the human cost - that lies behind Mr Grayling’s grossly inflated claims about prison library access, “well-stocked libraries” and ordering books through the prison library service. It’s all a bizarre mixture of half-truths, bogus claims and politician’s double-speak. Either he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about – which would be a concern, given that he is in charge of the prison system – or he’s knowingly telling whoppers. You decide.


  1. 12 books at a time? Pitiful. Even my husband who is in prison in Texas has no limit on the number of books he can own (as long as they fit in his locker and he can carry them with his posessions to the gym for searches). At the last count he had 73 books.

    Plus, I am able to order books through Amazon that he can receive. So for once, Texas is ahead of the UK in the way inmates are treated. Amazing, and sad.

    1. Thanks for your comments. This is a bizarre new rule that only came into force on 1 November 2013. Prior to that the only limit on the number of books that could be held in possession was whether they would fit into the two property boxes allocated to each prisoner. The 12 books do not include a dictionary/thesaurus or the Bible (or other religious books depending on the faith of the prisoner).

      This rule is a massive problem for prisoners who already have lots of books from before the new rule came in (PSI 30/2013). If you already have 12 books of your own (plus the dictionary and a religious text) then in theory you are even banned from borrowing any books from the prison library because the limit of 12 applies to all books "held in possession" in your cell.

      Also, if a prisoner is studying for a higher qualification, especially a degree, then they may need specific textbooks throughout their course for reference purposes. These have to be counted within the 12 book limit. So if you are on a three year course, you couldn't keep the textbooks required for each year in your possession so you could revise for your final exams at the end of the course. The whole system is now a nightmare for any cons attempting to get degrees (or even A- levels).

      Even worse is the fact that with the ban on outside organisations sending in study materials, it has become a real block on inmates who really want to learn or take vocational courses. Prison libraries often cannot get the necessary books via inter-library loans. Even if they can ordering can take weeks or even months, so the new system is causing havoc and actively discouraging prisoners from studying to gain qualifications.

      Orders placed by prisoners themselves for books from Amazon can only be made for new books (not second hand or out of print) so this is also forcing prices much higher than they really need be, plus many prisons also change an admin fee of 50p per order on top.

      All in all, it sounds like Texas is far more enlightened when it comes to books and education for prisoners. What a sad indictment of Chris Grayling and the coalition government in the UK!