Saturday 16 August 2014

Inside: the power of books in prisons

This is in response to justice secretary Chris Grayling's ban on books and other items being sent to prisoners. This article has also been picked up, here, by the human rights and civil liberties organisation Liberty. For more details on Grayling's measures click here and also here and to sign a petition protesting them please click here. The writer Leah Thorn, who has a decade's experience doing close outreach work in prisons, has granted me an incredibly informative, moving and trenchant interview about prison reform, inequality, incarceration and prison culture here.

I do outreach work in prisons and also in detention centres and I have seen first hand how powerful and important books are to prisoners. Book are vital, not only in providing enrichment for inmates but as a way of connecting with others to talk through, challenge, inspire and provoke debate in a rewarding and constructive way. In all the institutions I have visited, book groups, reading groups and writing groups exert a strong pull on prisoners, who show themselves again and again to be dedicated, committed, passionate and insightful in their work and in their dealings with me and with each other.

A literary culture creates the space for civilised, meaningful relating, for social development, for questioning and self-questioning, learning, self-improvement: all the things a truly constructive prison system should represent. I have seen virtually silent prisoners linger around the edges of a group and then, through a few comments and some close reading, gain confidence, develop their skills and showcase their talent. The books are not just a source of education but also of entertainment of the most enriching and deepening kind. They are, in fact, an essential tool in tackling the poor levels of literacy and the accompanying frustration, low self-expectation, daily obstacles, narrowed opportunities and the intractable economic and social deprivation and desperately limited horizons which contribute to an environment in which petty but repetitively (almost compulsively) committed crimes are almost an inevitability. I am not talking about 'being soft' on rapists, child abusers, batterers, thug murderers, predators and woman-killers but about lifting up and liberating that great miserable body of the prison population: neighbourhood burglars, car thieves, petty hustlers, smalltime crooks, scrappers and scufflers, drug pushers who are addicts, teenage or early twenties wannabe gangsters, holders or passers-off of stolen goods. For these types, prison can be an opportunity either to become grossly influenced by malign individuals even further down the road to moral and economic corruption - or to gain some skills, judgement, backbone (as opposed to bravado) and promise, which can be taken out into the world upon release. Reading skills can contribute to ensuring that, in time, released prisoners might build a stronger and better life for themselves than they had before their sentence, not because of an increase in something nebulous and romantic like dignity but because literacy skills are vital to worldly progress.

As with all teaching, through the collective experience of reading and talking about reading, the prisoners I have worked with have taught me much more than I could teach them or they could teach themselves without the structure and focus of a book to anchor them. Certainly, we all learned a thousand times more in a couple of hours spent together daily than we would have during whole afternoons spent on the landings [where the cells are] watching daytime TV.

Furthermore I have been told directly by women prisoners with initially low literacy skills how fundamental reading has been to them. One woman told me, "My mum didn't know how to read or write, I didn't know how to read or write, that was just the way it was. So I taught myself in prison."

There is a further point, and it is gendered. I am extremely alarmed by the cruelty and punitive malice of Grayling's proposals for women prisoners with children and the suggestion that children cannot send their mothers parcels.

The overwhelming majority of women prisoners are 'inside' for non-violent crimes. The process of incarceration is mentally traumatising in itself and additionally has grave real-world consequences. In virtually all the cases that I have seen, women prisoners had been their children's primary carers and guardians, with secondary care provided by grandmothers and other female relatives. With the central source of stability and care removed and in many cases moved far from families' home towns, if female relatives cannot take on the childcare responsibilities then families are broken up, young children are put in care and a new cycle of deprivation, vulnerability, exploitation, damaging instability, lack of opportunity and circumstantial predisposition to offending begins.

We can see from all this that it is often the supposed cure, not the crime, which creates deep and long term trauma and is a key factor in the pressing issue of women prisoners' mental health and self harm. Incarceration for crimes which are more often than not the result of economic deprivation, abuse, inequality and lack of support inflicts mental wounds, drags an entire family even further down socially and creates the ground for yet more crimes to be committed - out of survival, out of necessity and out of pain.

The sense of isolation in a prison is extreme and is made perversely worse by the sheer numbers of other prisoners, guards and civilian staff. The entire non-prison world is referred to by prisoners as Outside, and the prison described numbly as Inside. Incarcerating people in a way that is mentally violent as a means of punishing non-violent crimes does not work and destroys everything, inside and out, mental and physical. There is little stimulation in a prison except for basic skills learning, a few hours of classes per day, helping out as an orderly, working in various prison areas such as the 'servery' [kitchen and canteen] or packing boxes of goods to go between prisons, sitting in front of daytime TV, idle chat and destructive scheming which is usually the result of boredom and depression. In such a context books are a humane necessity, vital for the intellect, for processing and sublimating the emotions, for socialisation, for education and for development - not a form of empty entertainment to be handed out like sweets to those who behave well. It is a fallacy that prison life is cushy, although the routine and the utter predictability and slow demarcation and regimentation of time may be comforting for those whose outside lives feel insecure, emotionally raw or unsafe. Treats, in the form of everything from letters to books to clothes and sachets of perfume or a nice top, are rare and treasured.

Receiving gifts and messages from their children and having something to talk to them about on visits - something like a story from a book - is many women prisoners' lifeline, their only source of sustained warmth and hope from the outside world. A chat about a book, gifted to a prisoner by her child, may be the only thing which makes a prison visit less frightening for that child. The prisoners pay this token of love and kindness back at Christmas time when they record stories on CDs for their children to listen to.

I hope that Grayling changes his mind and seeks more effective, more humane, less petty and less malicious ways of reforming the prison system.

For more on my prison work see this report by the Prisoners' Education Trust, this from English PEN, this also from English PEN and Rape, Refusal, Destitution, Denial on my outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom had experienced detention and imprisonment.