Aside from all the current controversy over the ban on sending in parcels (including books) to prisoners in British prisons, reading does play a major part in helping inmates pass the time. Although illiteracy remains a significant challenge for many cons, particularly younger men whose education was severely disrupted when they were children, most prisoners can read, although not all choose to do so.
While I was in prison myself, I recall the sense of frustration across the wing when the weekly library session was suddenly cancelled with no warning. We'd be lined up by the main spur gate waiting for the duty screw to come and unlock us for the 20-minute visit. Young and old alike were queuing, some balancing a precarious pile of six books (the usual maximum loan) in their arms, others making use of a spare net laundry bag to carry their reading material over their shoulders like a cartoon burglar's swag sack.
A cancelled library session not only meant losing the chance to change books and find new ones to fill spare time for the coming week, but it also involved a loss of other opportunities: a gym session or exercise out in the fresh air. Prison is often about making small, but significant choices. Library sessions always clashed with exercise and gym, so sacrifices had to be made. A last minute cancellation was a double blow to morale as the chance to participate in other activities had been lost.
I've written elsewhere on this Blog about the C-cat establishment where weekly library visits were cancelled with monotonous regularity. During one particular month we only managed to get to the library once. This annoyed me so much that I actually filled in a COMP 1 (complaint form) to the governor. A 'custodial manager' (what the Service now calls a principal officer) did have the decency to reply with an apology, but the explanation was simply that "operational issues" had to take priority. This probably meant either staff shortages or that inmates on another wing had kicked off around the same time as our library session.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits for me of being re-categorised as a D-cat (after three appeals) and getting a transfer to an open prison was the freedom to visit a reasonably well-stocked library whenever I had free time. If any reader who has not experienced prison thinks that such things don't matter much, then they are wrong. The library at my D-cat was well-run and the civilian librarian who ran it still ranks as one of the most decent human beings I encountered while I was inside. He treated everyone - staff and prisoner alike - as a customer of equal worth and potential. And that really means something in prison, particularly for lifers and long-termers who may have spent the last 20 years being treated like scum.
This library was almost always packed (unless there was a football match on the games field in the good weather). Prisoners' behaviour was impeccable: no smoking in the stacks, no chewing gum, no vandalism. I always think that one of the main arguments in favour of open prisons is that they offer a chance for inmates who have served long sentences to acclimatise back to 'normality' before actually being released and being treated as a customer, rather than as a con, is an important part of the 'decompression' process. It's good practice ahead of returning to the real world beyond the gate.